Distinguishing blue from green in language

Distinguishing blue from green in language
The application of terms to ranges of the visible spectrum are essentially arbitrary, cultural conventions. The notion of "green" in modern European languages corresponds to about 520–570 nm, but many historical and non-European languages make other choices, e.g. using a term for the range of ca. 450–530 nm ("blue/green") and another for ca. 530–590 nm ("green/yellow")
Traditional colors of Japan:
#5B8930 萌黄 Moegi "Fresh Onion", listed with yellow
#6B9362 若竹色 Wakatake-iro "Young bamboo color", listed with blue

The English language makes a distinction between blue and green, but some languages do not. Of these, quite a number, mostly in Africa, do not distinguish blue from black either, while there are a handful of languages that do not distinguish blue from black but have a separate term for green.[1] Also, some languages treat light (often greenish) blue and dark blue as separate colors, rather than different variations of blue, while English does not.

According to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's 1969 study Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, distinct terms for brown, purple, pink, orange and grey will not emerge in a language until the language has made a distinction between green and blue. In their account of the development of color terms the first terms to emerge are those for white/black (or light/dark), red and green/yellow.[2]

Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green, instead using a cover term for both (when the issue is discussed in linguistics, this cover term is sometimes called grue in English). For example, in Vietnamese both tree leaves and the sky are xanh (to distinguish, one may use xanh lá cây "leaf grue" for green and xanh dương "ocean grue" for blue). In the Thai language, เขียว (khiaw) means green except when referring to the sky or the sea, when it means blue; เขียวชอุ่ม (khiaw cha-um), เขียวขจี (khiaw khachi), and เขียวแปร๊ด (khiaw praed) have all meant either intense blue or garish green, although the latter is becoming more usual as the language 'learns' to distinguish blue and green. Chinese has a word (qīng) that can refer to both, and sometimes black, though it also has separate words for blue ( / , lán), green (绿 / , ), and black (, hēi). The Korean word 푸르다 (pureuda) can mean either green or blue. In Japanese, the word for blue ( ao) is often used for colors that English speakers would refer to as green, such as the color of a traffic signal meaning "go". Some Nguni languages of southern Africa, including Tswana utilize the same word for blue and green.

The exact definition of "blue" and "green" may be complicated by the speakers not primarily distinguishing the hue, but using terms that describe other color components such as saturation and luminosity, or other properties of the object being described. For example, "blue" and "green" might be distinguished, but a single term might be used for both if the color is dark. Furthermore, green might be associated with yellow, and blue with black or gray.




In Arabic the word for blue is generally أزرق azraq. The Arabic word for green is أخضر akhḍar. However, the color of the sky is sometimes referred to as "green" in Classical Arabic poetry, in which الخضراء al-khaḍrā’, the feminine form of akhḍar (because the Arabic word for sky, سماء samā’ is feminine), literally 'the green one', is an epithet for the sky. But الزرقاء al-zarqā’ (feminine form of azraq, literally 'the blue one') is used as an epithet for the sky as well.

In Sudan, it is considered polite not to use the word for black, aswad, to refer to people's skin color. Instead, darker-skinned Arabs are called akhḍar 'green', while black Arabs and Africans are called azraq 'blue', as part of a seven-tier scheme for distinguishing skin tones that also includes "white," "yellow," "red," "brown," while "black" has derogatory connotations in Sudanese society.[3] More commonly, the term "asmar" is used to describe males with dark skin. The female equivalent is "samra'".


In Hebrew, the word "כחול" (pronounced /kaˈχol/) means blue, while "ירוק" (pronounced /jaˈʁok/) means green.

Like Russian and Italian, Hebrew has a separate name for light blue (תכלת, "t'khelet") - the color of the sky and of fringes on the ritual garment Tzitzit.

In modern Hebrew, the word "כתום" (pronounced /kaˈtom/) is generally used to refer to orange (the color of the fruit), although it is also applied to colors closer to yellow or gold based on its biblical usage as golden.



There are separate words for green (zaļš) and blue (zils) in Latvian. Both zils and zaļš stem from the same Proto-Indo-European word for yellow (*ghel). Several other words in Latvian have been derived from these colors, namely grass is called zāle (from zaļš), while the name for iris is zīlīte (from zils).

The now archaic word mēļš was used to describe both dark blue and black (probably indicating that previously zils was used only for lighter shades of blue). For instance, blueberries are called mellenes.


Bulgarian, a South Slavic language, makes a clear distinction between blue (синьо, sinyo), green (зелено, zeleno) and black (черно, cherno).

In the Polish language, blue (niebieski) and green (zielony) are treated as separate colors. The word for sky blue or azure—błękitny—might be considered either a basic color or a shade of blue by different speakers. Similarly dark blue or navy (granatowy — deriving from the name of pomegranate (granat), some cultivars of which are dark purplish blue in color) can be considered by some speakers as a separate basic color. Black (czarny) is completely distinguished from blue. As in English, Polish distinguishes pink ("różowy") from red ("czerwony").

The word siwy (possibly a Finnish loanword) means blue-gray in Polish (literally it means the color of gray hair). The word siny refers to violet-blue and is used to describe the color of bruises ("siniaki"), hematoma, and the blue skin discoloration that can result from moderate hypothermia.

Russian does not have a single word referring to the whole range of colors denoted by the English term "blue." Instead, it traditionally treats light blue (голубой, goluboy) as a separate color independent from plain or dark blue (синий, siniy), with all seven "basic" colors of the spectrum (red - orange - yellow - green - голубой / goluboy (sky blue, light azure, but does not equal cyan) - синий / siniy ('true' deep blue, like synthetic ultramarine) - violet) while in English the light blues like azure and cyan are considered mere shades of "blue" and not different colors. To better understand this, consider that English makes a similar distinction between "red" and light red (pink, which is considered a different color and not merely a kind of red), but such a distinction is unknown in several other languages; for example, both "red" ( / , hóng) and "pink" (粉红, fěn hóng, lit. "powder red") have traditionally been considered varieties of a single color in Chinese. Russian language as well makes distinction between red (красный, krasniy) and pink (розовый, rozoviy).

Similarly English descriptions of rainbows have often distinguished between blue or turquoise [4] and indigo,[5] the latter of which is often described as dark blue or ultramarine.[6]

  • Blue: plavo (плаво) indicates any blue
    • Dark blue: modro
    • Navy blue: teget
    • Steel-blue: čelikasto-ugasita† (used in reference to the flag of the Serbian revolution)
    • Light blue: sinja
      • Lighter blue: plavetna† (used in reference to the flag of Montenegro)
  • Green: zeleno (зелено)

† Not used in everyday language.

Other shades are presented with a preceding word i.e. tamnoplava.

Blond hair is called plava (blue). Anything that is turquoise is called green. Sometimes blue eyes are also called green eyes.


The boundaries between blue and green are not the same in Welsh and English. The word glas is usually translated as "blue". It can also refer, variously, to the color of the sea, of grass, or of silver. The word gwyrdd is the standard translation for "green".

Glas (same spelling) is, comparably, the translation for "green" in Irish and Breton, with specific reference to plant hues of green; other shades would be referred to in Modern Irish as uaine or uaithne. In Middle Irish and Old Irish, glas was a blanket term for colors ranging from green to blue to various shades of grey (i.e. the glas of a sword, the glas of stone, etc.).

In Modern Irish the word for "blue" is gorm – a borrowing of the Early Welsh word gwrm, now obsolete, meaning "dark blue" or "dusky". A relic of the original meaning ("dusky") survives in the Irish term daoine gorma, meaning "Black people".

Contemporary Scottish Gaelic distinguishes between blue and green with the terms gorm and uaine, respectively. However, the dividing line between the two colors is somewhat different from English, with uaine signifying a light green or yellow-green. The word gorm extends from dark blue (what in English might be Navy blue) to include the dark green or blue-green of vegetation. Grass, for instance, is gorm, rather than uaine. In addition, liath covers a range from light blue to light grey.

In traditional Welsh (and related Celtic languages), glas could refer to blue but also to certain shades of green and grey; however, modern Welsh is tending toward the 11-color Western scheme, restricting glas to blue and using gwyrdd for green and llwyd for grey. Similarly, in Irish, glas can mean various shades of green and grey (like the sea), while liath is grey proper (like a stone), and the term for blue proper is gorm (like the sky or Cairngorm mountains), although gorm can also in some contexts mean black — sub-Saharan black people would be referred to as daoine gorma, or blue people. Also the boundary between colors varies much more than the "focus point": e.g. a single island is named in Breton Enez glas ("the blue island") and in French l'Ile Verte ("the green island") referring in both cases to the greyish-green color of its bushes, even though both languages distinguish green (as in lawn grass) from blue (as in a cloudless midday sky).


The Romance terms for "green" (French vert) etc. are all from Latin viridis. The terms for "blue", on the other hand, vary: French bleu is from Germanic, and was in turn loaned into many other languages, including English.

Italian distinguishes blue (blu) and green (verde). There are also two words for light blue (e.g. sky's color): azzurro and celeste. Azzurro, the English equivalent of "Royal Blue", is not considered to be a shade of blu, but rather the opposite, i.e. blu is a darker shade of azzurro[7]. Celeste literally means '(the color) of the sky' and is often used as synonym of azzurro[citation needed], although it's a lighter color than azzurro[8]. To indicate a mix of green and celeste Italians say verde acqua, literally water green or acquamarina (aquamarine), or glauco, which is also used to indicate a mix of green and gray in plants[9].

In Portuguese, the word "azul" means blue and the word "verde" means green. Furthermore, "azul-claro" means light-blue, and "azul-escuro", means dark-blue. More distinctions can be made between several hues of blue. For instance, "azul-celeste" means sky blue, "azul-marinho" means navy-blue and "azul-turquesa" means turquoise-blue. One can also make the distinction between "verde-claro" and "verde-escuro", meaning light and dark-green respectively, and more distinctions between several qualities of green: for instance, "verde-oliva" means olive-green and "verde-esmeralda" means emerald-green. Cyan is usually called "ciano", but can also be called "verde-água", meaning water green, or "azul-piscina", meaning pool blue.

Romanian clearly distinguishes between the colors green (verde) and blue (albastru). It also uses separate words for different hues of the same color, e.g. light blue (bleu), blue (albastru), dark-blue (bleu-marin or bleomarin), along with a word for turquoise (turcoaz) and azure (azur or azuriu).

Similarly to French, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese, Spanish distinguishes blue (azul) and green (verde) and has an additional term for the tone of blue visible in the sky, namely "celeste", which is nonetheless considered a shade of blue.


In Old Norse the word blár was also used to describe black (and the common word for people of African descent was thus blámenn 'blue/black men'). In Swedish, blå, the modern word for blue, was used this way until the early 20th century.

German and Dutch distinguish blue (respectively Blau and blauw) and green (Grün and groen) very similar to English. There are terms for light blue (Himmelblau and hemelblauw, literally 'sky blue') and darker shades of blue (Dunkelblau and donkerblauw). Note that in German all nouns are capitalized, therefore color names are written with a capital letter when appearing as a noun, but with a lowercase letter when used as an adjective. In addition, adjective forms of most traditional color names are inflected to match the corresponding noun's case and gender. A number of "modern" color names (such as rosa, meaning 'pink' or 'rose') are not inflected; instead, in Standard German, it is necessary to add the suffix farben or farbig (colored), and inflect the result (for example: ein rosafarbenes Auto, lit. 'a pink-colored car'). This, however, is often disregarded in colloquial speech, resulting in forms like ein rosanes Auto or simply ein rosa Auto.


The terms for "blue" and "green" have changed completely in the transition from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek. Ancient Greek had γλαυκός "bluish green, blue-green", contrasting with χλωρός "yellowish green". Modern Greek has πράσινο (prásino) for green, and the recent loan μπλε (ble <French bleu) for blue.


In Kurdish the word "şîn" (pronounced sheen), meaning "blue", is used for green things in nature like leaves, grass, and eyes. However, there is another word, "kesk", which is used for other green things, for instance in the Kurdish flag.

Ossetian has one word for blue, light blue and green - цъæх (tsah), but it also has a separate word for green - кæрдæгхуыз (kardaghuyz), literally - grassy (from кæрдæг - grass). The latter derives from кæрдын (kardyn) - to mow, i.e. grass is what is mowed (like in German Heu (hau) < hauen (to mow)). Ossetian also has several words for light blue: æрвхуыз (arvhuyz) from æрвон - sky; бæлонхуыз (balonhuyz) from бæлон - pigeon (a calque from Russian, cf. голубой (light blue) < голубь (pigeon)).

Pashto uses the word shīn to denote blue as well as green. Shinkay, a word derived from shīn, means 'greenery' but shīn āsmān means 'blue sky'. When there is ambiguity, it is common to ask (as in Vietnamese), "Shīn like the sky? Or shīn like plants?"

Persian words for blue include آبی ābi (literally the color of water, from āb 'water'), for blue generally; نیلی nili (from nil, 'indigo dye'), for deeper shades of blue such as the color of rain clouds; فیروزه fayruzeh 'turquoise stone', used to describe the color of blue eyes; لاجوردی lājvardi or لاژوردی lāzhvardi 'lapis lazuli color', source of the words lazuli and azure; نیلوفری nilufari 'water lily color'; and کبود kabud, an old literary word for 'blue'.

The Persian word for green is سبز sabz, but this word can also be used for 'black, dark, opaque' as well as for the color of what are called blue eyes in English. As in Sudan, dark-skinned people may be described as "green."

The color of the sky is variously described in Persian poetry using the words sabz, fayruzeh, nil, lājvardi, or nilufari— literally 'green', 'indigo', 'turquoise', 'azure', or 'the color of water lilies'. For example, sabz-ākhor 'green stable', sabz-āshyāneh 'green ceiling', sabz-ayvān 'green balcony', sabz-bādbān 'green sail', sabz-bāgh 'green garden', sabz-farsh 'green carpet', sabz-golshan 'green flower-garden', sabz-kārgāh 'green workshop', sabz-khvān 'green table', sabz-manzareh 'green panorama', sabz-maydān 'green field' sabz-pol 'green bridge', sabz-tāq 'green arch', sabz-tasht 'green bowl', and sabz-tā’us 'green peacock' are poetic epithets for the sky—in addition to similar compounds using the words for blue, e.g. lājvardi-saqf 'lapis lazuli colored roof' or fayruzeh-tasht 'turquoise bowl'. Moreover, the words for green of Arabic origin اخضر akhzar and خضرا khazrā are used for epithets of the sky or heaven, such as charkh-e akhzar 'green wheel'.[10]


Hindi distinguishes blue (neela) and green (hara). Words for light blue are considered to be a shade of blue.


Historically, the Basque language did not distinguish between "blue", "green", and "gray", using the term urdin to cover all three. However, present day usage is to reserve the word urdin for "blue", with borrowings from Castilian Spanish making up the other two terms (berde from Spanish "verde", green, and gris from Spanish "gris", gray).



Finnish makes a distinction between vihreä (green) and sininen (blue). Turquoise or teal (turkoosi or sinivihreä) is considered to be a separate, intermediate, color between green and blue, and black (musta) is also differentiated from blue.

The name for color blue, sininen is shared with other Finnic languages and is thus dated to the era of the Proto-Finnic language (ca. 5000 years old). However, it is also shared with the unrelated language Russian (синий, siniy), suggesting that it is a loanword. (Alternatively, the Russian word синий could represent Finnic substratum). The word vihreä (viher-, archaic viheriä, viheriäinen) is related to vehreä "verdant" and vihanta "green", and viha "hate", originally "poison". It is not shared with Estonian, in which it is roheline, probably related with the Estonian word rohi "grass". However, the form viha does have correspondences in related languages as far as Permic languages, where it means not only poison but "bile" or "green or yellow". It has been originally loaned from an Indo-Iranian protolanguage and is related to Latin virus "poison". Furthermore, the word musta "black" is also of Finnic origin.

The differentiation of several colors by hue is at least Baltic-Finnic (a major subgroup of Uralic) in origin. Before this, only red (punainen) was clearly distinguished by hue, with other colors described in terms of brightness (valkea vs. musta), using non-color adjectives for further specificity. Alternatively, it appears that the distinction between valkea and musta was in fact "clean, shining" vs. "dirty, murky". The original meaning of sini was possibly either "black/dark" or "green". Mauno Koski's theory is that such that dark colors of high saturation — both blue and green — would be sini, while shades of color with low saturation, such as dark brown or black, would be musta. Although it is theorized that originally vihreä was not a true color name and was used to describe plants only, the occurrence of vihreä or viha as a name of a color in several related languages shows that it was probably polysemic (meaning both "green" and "verdant") already in early Baltic-Finnic. However, whatever the case with these theories, differentiation of blue and green must be at least as old as the Baltic-Finnic languages.[11]


Hungarian makes the distinction between green (zöld) and blue (kék), and also distinguishes black (fekete). Intermediate colors between green and blue are commonly referred to as zöldeskék (literally greenish-blue) or kékeszöld (bluish-green), but names for specific colors in this continuum - like turquoise (türkiz) - also exist. Particular shades of a color can also have separate names, such as azure (azúr).


The Kazakh language, like many Turkic languages, distinguishes between kök as the word for the color of the sky, the sea, and green plants, and jasâl as the color for man-made green things.

Turkish treats dark or navy blue (lacivert, from the same Persian root as English azure and lapis lazuli) as a separate color from plain or light blue (mavi). Mavi is derived from the Arabic word مائي mā’ī 'like water' (ماء mā’ being the Arabic word for water) and lacivert is derived from Persian لاجورد lājvard 'lapis lazuli', a semiprecious stone with the color of navy blue. In the pre-Islamic religion of the Turks, blue is the color that represented the east, as well as the zodiac sign Aquarius (the Water Bearer). A characteristic tone of blue, turquoise, was much used by the Turks for their traditional decorations and jewelry.

In traditional pre-Islamic Turkic culture, both blue and green were represented by the same name, gök 'sky'. The name is still in use in many rural areas. For instance, in many regions of Turkey, when mold is formed on cheese, the phenomenon is called gögermek 'turning into the color of gök/sky'.


In Mongolian, the word for green is ногоон (nogoon). Mongolian distinguishes between dark and light blue. The word for light blue is цэнхэр (tsenher) and the word for dark blue is хѳх (höh).


Tamil clearly distinguishes between the colors green (pachai), blue (neelam) and black (karuppu). There are no separate words for light and dark blue.

East Asian languages


The modern Chinese language has the blue-green distinction (/ lán for blue and 绿 / for green); however, another word which predates the modern vernacular, qīng (Chinese: ), is also used. It can refer to either blue or green, or even (though much less frequently) to black, as in xuánqīng (Chinese: where Chinese: refers to black). For example, the Flag of the Republic of China is today still referred to as qīng tiān, bái rì, mǎn dì hóng ("Blue Sky, White Sun, Whole Ground Red" — Chinese: 天,白日,满地红); whereas qīng cài (Chinese: ) is the Chinese word for "green vegetable". Qīng 青 was the traditional designation of both blue and green for much of the history of the Chinese language, while 蓝 lán and 绿 were introduced relatively more recently, as a part of the adoption of modern Vernacular Chinese as the social norm, replacing Classical Chinese.


The Japanese word ao (?, n., aoi (?, adj.)), exactly the same kanji character as the Chinese qīng above, can refer to either blue or green depending on the situation. Modern Japanese has also adopted the Chinese word for green ( midori?), although this was not always so. Ancient Japanese did not have this distinction: the word midori only came into use in the Heian period, and at that time (and for a long time thereafter) midori was still considered a shade of ao. Educational materials distinguishing green and blue only came into use after World War II.[citation needed]: thus, even though most Japanese consider them to be green, the word ao is still used to describe certain vegetables, apples, and vegetation. Ao is also the name for the color of a traffic light. However, most other objects—a green car, a green sweater, and so forth—will generally be called midori. Japanese people also sometimes use the word gurīn (グリーン?), based on the English word "green", for colors. The language also has several other words meaning specific shades of green and blue.


The native Korean word 푸르다 (Revised Romanization: pureu-da adj.) may mean either blue or green, or bluish green. This word 푸르다 is used as in 푸른 하늘 (pureun haneul, blue sky) for blue or as in 푸른 숲 (pureun sup, green forest) for green. Distinct words for blue and green are also used; 파란 (paran adj.), 파란색/파랑 (paransaek/parang n.) for blue, 초록 (chorok adj./n.), 초록색 (choroksaek n. or for short, 녹색 noksaek n.) for green. However, in the case of a traffic light, paran is used for the green light meaning go, even though the word is typically used to mean blue. Cheong is also used for both blue and green. It is a loan from Chinese (, pinyin: qing) and is used in the proper name Cheong Wa Dae (청와대 or Hanja: 瓦臺), the Blue House, which is the executive office and official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea.


Vietnamese usually does not use separate words for green and refers to that color using a word that can also refer to blue. In Vietnamese, blue and green are denoted by xanh (is a colloquial rendering of what is otherwise called thanh in Hán tự cognate with , as with Chinese and Japanese); blue is specifically described as xanh, as in the womb of the sky (xanh bầu trời) and green as xanh, as in the leaves (xanh lá cây).

Modern Vietnamese occasionally does employ the terms xanh lam and xanh lục (in which the second syllables derive from the Chinese: and 绿 as explained further below) for blue and green, respectively.

Filipino (Tagalog)

Speakers of Tagalog most commonly use the borrowed Spanish words for blue and green - asul (from Spanish azul) and berde (from Spanish verde), respectively. Although these words are much more common in spoken use, the Tagalog language has native terms for these, as well: bughaw for blue and lunti(an) for green, which are often used in literature, music and poetry.

An adult joke that would be referred to as a "blue joke" in English is called a "green joke" in Tagalog, as it's called in other Hispanic countries ("chiste verde").


The Swahili word for blue is buluu, which is derived directly from English and has been in the language for a relatively short time. For other colors, Swahili uses either rangi ya ___ (the color of ___) or a shortened version, -a ___. For example, green is rangi ya kijani or rangi ya majani, which means the color of grass/leaves. Sky blue is rangi ya samawati, or the color of the sky from the Arabic word for sky. (Note: all of these can be written as -a kijani, -a majani, -a samwati etc.)[12]

Zulu uses the word -luhlaza (the prefix changes according to the class of the noun) for blue/green.

American languages

In the Lakota Sioux language, the word tĥo is used for both blue and green.

Single words for blue/green are also found in Mayan languages; for example in the Yukatek Maya language blue/green is yax.

Tupian languages did not originally differ between the two colors, though they may now as a result of interference of Spanish (in the case of Guaraní) or Portuguese (in the case of Nheengatu). The Tupi word obý ([oβɨ]) meant both as does the Guarani hovy (ɦɔvɨ).

The Yebamasa (Rio Piraparana - Vaupés - SE-Colombia) use the term sumese for blue/green. The letter "u" is pronounced like the German "ü". (Fieldword Deltgen/Scheffer in 1977)

See also


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