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 Topic: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains

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  • How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains
     OP - June 17, 2012, 11:36 AM

    This is a long article, but definitely worth a read. Very fascinating.

    In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.

    Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

    One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.

    In modern Japanese, midori is the word for green, as distinct from blue. This divorce of blue and green was not without its scars. There are clues that remain in the language, that bear witness to this awkward separation. For example, in many languages the word for vegetable is synonymous with green (sabzi in Urdu literally means green-ness, and in English we say ‘eat your greens’). But in Japanese, vegetables are ao-mono, literally blue things. Green apples? They’re blue too. As are the first leaves of spring, if you go by their Japanese name. In English, the term green is sometimes used to describe a novice, someone inexperienced. In Japanese, they’re ao-kusai, literally they ‘smell of blue’. It’s as if the borders that separate colors follow a slightly different route in Japan.

    Continue reading

    I think the lessons to be taken from this are that:

    1) Language is a human construct that is constricted by the limits of human perception, but
    2) All humans perceive the world in a similar way, thus making it possible for us to have a humanly universal language.

  • Re: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains
     Reply #1 - June 17, 2012, 02:29 PM

    Very interesting article. I only read what you posted but when I have more time I will read the rest.

    I don't speak Vietnamese however I've been told the colors are bluelikethesky and bluelikethegrass.

    I am an advocate of everyone being at least bilingual because learning a language is like a window into the mind of how another people think. This idea of being an advocate of at least bilingual may seem odd to many in other parts of the world. At first it was amazing to me also that I had to advocate such an idea.. However there is a great resistance among some to feel a need to speak anything other then English.

    If at first you succeed...try something harder.

    Failing isn't falling down. Failing is not getting back up again.
  • Re: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains
     Reply #2 - June 17, 2012, 03:00 PM


    "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." - Viktor E. Frankl

    'Life is just the extreme expression of complex chemistry' - Neil deGrasse Tyson
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