Why don't Americans have a name for the color 'light blue?' Study finds unique color terms used in Japan, US

March 28, 2017 by Misti Crane
New research from Ohio State University finds significant differences in color terminology in Japan and the US and calls for "mizu" (light blue) to enter the ranks of one of the commonly used color terms in the Japanese lexicon. Credit: Angela Brown

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 , 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 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."

Explore further: The evolution of Japanese color vocabulary over the past 30 years

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Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2017
How about "baby blue?"

https://en.wikipe...aby_blue
aksdad
not rated yet Mar 29, 2017
Azure. Cyan. Aqua. We just don't use them very often because it's so simple to use an adjective to modify "blue", like light blue, sky blue, dark blue, royal blue, navy blue, and people easily grasp the general idea.
lifeinthetrees
not rated yet Mar 29, 2017
2 syllables - light blue. easily said. highly convenient, as many syllables as mizu.

both terms are equally convenient. new words arise because of their usefulness and figurative style.
JongDan
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2017
mizu = water... so, aqua? I even see it in upper set
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Mar 29, 2017
"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,"

Ya know...could it be that the Japanese have a color association with 'water' becauseJapan is - hold on to your hats - a set of friggin' islands? And everyone and their dog has first hand experience - on an almost daily basis - of what large expanses of water look like? people tend to associate colors with stuff they know intimately.

(Whereas people who live in landlocked areas and only see water when it comes out of their tap don't have strong associations with the color?)

Just a thought.
434a
not rated yet Mar 29, 2017
I'm not sure why I would be expected to be surprised that two distinct cultures with two distinct languages would not be different in an area that is so subjective.

The ancient Greeks didn't have a word for blue as we understand it and they are an island nation. In the iliad Homer describes the sky as bronze and the sea as wine - no mention if he meant white or red!

The word that they used for light blue, glaukos, seems to be a shade rather than a specific colour as it seems to also get used for pale green, grey and even yellow.

Apparently Dulux and my fiancee are both able to distinguish between shades of blue that I swear a colourimeter couldn't tell apart lol

cardzeus
not rated yet Mar 29, 2017
Does any American really use 'periwinkle' or 'sky' (without blue tagged on), and as for 'golden rod' ...
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2017
The ancient Greeks didn't have a word for blue as we understand it and they are an island nation.

The greeks used a word for blue that is similar in meaning to the latin word for sky-blue (ceruleum) If you've ever been to Greece you'll easily see why, because the water is actually close to the color of the sky on a beautiful day (which is most days in Greece. If you ever plan a trip for sunshine and relaxing the Greek islands are a good spot to go - as long as you avoid the major cities which aren't really worth it)
cardzeus
Mar 29, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
krundoloss
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2017
I think Aqua fits the bill pretty accurately, and the point about Syllables is true as well. We say light blue, dark blue and blue because the difference is fairly dramatic between shades of blue. But necessity is the mother of word invention, and I'm sure anyone who needs to use a single word to describe colors, like someone who works in a Paint store, will adopt more efficient words for colors as quickly as needed.
434a
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2017

The greeks used a word for blue that is similar in meaning to the latin word for sky-blue (ceruleum) If you've ever been to Greece you'll easily see why, because the water is actually close to the color of the sky on a beautiful day (which is most days in Greece. If you ever plan a trip for sunshine and relaxing the Greek islands are a good spot to go - as long as you avoid the major cities which aren't really worth it)


The only reference I can find for ceruleum (caeruleum) is in Ovid's metamorphoses which is in latin and refers to Trition rising from the waves and makes me think this is a reference to water than a specific colour.

Caeruleum would appear to derive from Caelum, vault of heaven, which was turned into the English word Cerlean or Caerulean which was used as a descriptive for blue/cyan colours.

If you have a greek etymology I would be very interested.

Yes I have been to Greece and its islands :-)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2017
I think I wasn't totally clear in my post:
The roman word is cearuleum, the greeks use kyanos which - if I'm not mistaken - also means 'sky-blue'
(I didn't mean to imply that the greek word and the roman word were etymologically related...I just threw cearuleum in there because the word 'cerulean' - its color-meaning and the association with 'sky' - is a word that is probably familiar to many)
434a
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2017
I think I wasn't totally clear in my post:
The roman word is cearuleum, the greeks use kyanos which - if I'm not mistaken - also means 'sky-blue'
(I didn't mean to imply that the greek word and the roman word were etymologically related...I just threw cearuleum in there because the word 'cerulean' - its color-meaning and the association with 'sky' - is a word that is probably familiar to many)


Ok I understand now, I think Kyanos means dark rather than specifically blue and was used to describe colours from dark blue to black even dark green was sometimes called Kynaos. In the iliad Hector, son of King Priam, is described as having hair that was Kyanos, whilst it's not impossible that he had blue hair it was most probably meant to describe a lustres black.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2017
Hm, I thought kyanos was rather a form of light blue (doesn't the word 'cyan' derive from kyanos?)
vacuumforce
not rated yet Mar 31, 2017
Azure. Cyan. Aqua. We just don't use them very often because it's so simple to use an adjective to modify "blue", like light blue, sky blue, dark blue, royal blue, navy blue, and people easily grasp the general idea.


Holy crap! You discovered a new color! Better let these scientists know about it!

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