Nav: Home

Why don't Americans have a name for the color 'light blue?'

March 28, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio - If a Japanese woman were to compliment a friend on her flattering pale-blue blouse, she'd probably employ a word with no English equivalent.

"Mizu" translates to "water" and has emerged in recent decades as a unique shade in the Japenese lexicon, new research has found.

English speakers have "light blue," sure. But "mizu" is its own color, not merely a shade of another. It's similar to how people in the United States use "magenta," rather than "purplish-red."

Researchers from Japan and The Ohio State University collaborated on the study, which examines the color lexicon in Japan over time and compares the country's modern color terminology to words used in the United States. The study appears in the Journal of Vision.

The researchers asked 57 native Japanese speakers to name the colors on cards placed before them. The study participants used 93 unique color terms. No modifiers such as "light" or "dark" were allowed.

Identification of basic long-standing color terms came as no surprise, but the use of "mizu" by almost everyone in the group is new and strong evidence that it should be included among 12 generally accepted basic Japanese color terms, the researchers concluded.

Furthermore, they found differences between color language in the two modern, diverse societies.

Some unique and commonly described color terms in one language are missing in the other. In Japan, "mizu" is one, as is "kon" (dark blue.) In the U.S., native speakers often use the words "teal," "lavender," "peach" and "magenta," none of which has a commonly used Japanese equivalent.

"Like animal species, language is constantly evolving," said Ohio State's Delwin Lindsey, a professor of psychology who worked on the study with optometry professor Angela Brown and Japanese colleagues from several institutions.

Humans mostly see color in exactly the same way. But how we describe it varies widely and it tells researchers about more than just whether that pretty blouse is "mizu" or "light blue."

"In America, we don't have a single unique word for light blue. The closest thing we have is "sky," but when we ask, we don't elicit that very often," Brown said.

"In Japan, 'mizu' is as different from 'blue' as 'green' is from 'blue.'"

Lindsey and Brown said the study of color language goes beyond how we describe a blouse, car or crayon.

"We're interested in how colors are represented through language and how that gets distributed through society. How is it that we all decide that blue is blue? We do so through interaction," Lindsey said.

Added Brown, "The study of color naming is fundamentally the study of how words come to be associated with things - all things that exist, from teacups to love."

The color lexicon happens to be easier to study than other aspects of language evolution. Colors are easily described, reproduced and displayed.

And there is vast difference in what colors we use from culture to culture and individual to individual.

"The visual system can discern millions of colors," Brown said. "But people only describe a limited number of them and that varies depending on their community and the variety of colors that enter into their daily lives."

There are areas of the world, for instance, where blue and green are lumped together - something color researchers call "grue."

"People around the world have very different color-naming systems and that raises interesting questions about what we're born with and what's strongly contingent upon our culture," said Lindsey, who teaches at Ohio State's Mansfield campus.

"In general, the more basic the color terms, the less technologically and economically advanced the culture," he said.

"But what's really interesting is there are remarkable similarities in color descriptions amongst people who live thousands of miles apart. And there can be differences between next-door neighbors."
-end-
The study was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Research Institute of Electrical Communication at Japan's Tohoku University.

Ryan Lange, now at the University of Chicago, worked on the study as a graduate student in Ohio State's College of Optometry.

CONTACTS: Angela Brown, 614-292-4423; Brown.112@osu.edu. Delwin Lindsey, 419-755-4359; Lindsey.43@osu.edu.

Written by Misti Crane, 614-292-5220; Crane.11@osu.edu

Ohio State University

Related Language Articles:

New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
American sign language and English language learners: New linguistic research supports the need for policy changes
A new study of the educational needs of students who are native users of American Sign Language (ASL) shows glaring disparities in their treatment by the U.S Department of Education.
The language of facial expressions
University of Miami Psychology Professor Daniel Messinger collaborated with researchers at Western University in Canada to show that our brains are pre-wired to perceive wrinkles around the eyes as conveying more intense and sincere emotions.
The universal language of hormones
Bioinformatics specialists from the University of Würzburg have studied a specific class of hormones which is relevant for plants, bacteria and indirectly for humans, too.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.