“For each man a colour” is a famous Korean proverb and it is certainly and refreshingly true that around the world the connection between language and colour varies considerably. And so we move from ‘colourful language’ to the ‘language of colour’.
We might feel that every language has a word for every colour, but this isn’t so. Nine languages only interpret black and white. In Dan, for example, which is spoken in New Guinea, people talk in terms of things being either mili (which translates as darkish) or mola ( as lightish).
As with colours, so with the rainbow. The Bassa people of Liberia see only two colours: ziza (red/orange/yellow) and hui (green/blue/purple) in their spectrum. In the Hanunó’o language, spoken by Mangyans in the Philippines, there are just four basic colour terms: black, white, red and green. The Shona of Zimbabwe also only see four: cipsuka (red/orange), cicena (yellow and yellow-green), citema (green-blue) and cipsuka again (the word also represents both the purple end of the spectrum). It is just the well-developed countries that see the seven colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
In some languages a single word for a colour can have many interpretations. The Japanese word ao can mean blue, green or pale.The Welsh for blue is glas, as in the expression yng nglas y dydd, in the blue of the day (the early morning). But it’s also used in the expression gorau glas (‘blue best’), to mean to do one’s best, and, changing tack rather dramatically, it appears as glas wen (‘blue smile’), a smile that is insincere and mocking. In Welsh literature, glas is a colour that is somewhere between green, blue and grey; it also has poetic meanings of both youth and death.
As for the range of colours, twenty-one languages have distinct words for black, red and white only; eight have those colours plus green; then the sequence in which additional colours are brought into languages is yellow, with a further eighteen languages, then blue (with six) and finally brown (with seven).
It’s only perhaps in this regard can one say that colours have any global constancy of linguistic use.
In 1969 scholars felt that it wasn’t fair to argue that there was a striking difference between the colour terms of various languages or that every language had worked out its own system in a totally arbitrary way.
While on the one hand, the idiomatic use of colour conforms to some natural generalities (blue for tranquility, green for nature, pink for love etc.) it is refreshing for those learning a language to discover just how equally often these notions are turned on their head.
If we take green for example, with these idioms, the colour enjoys a much more active role, as it tries to translate the inconstant world of emotions:
håbet er lysegrønt (Danish) stay hopeful even when it looks bleak (lit. hope is light green)
Grün vor Stolz (German) very proud (lit. green with pride)
me sacas canas verdes (Spanish) you are annoying or angering me (lit. you’re giving me green hairs)
vert de peur (French) very frightened (lit. green from fear)
ficar verde de raiva (Portuguese) to become furious (lit. to become green with rage)
Likewise, it’s heartening when an identical feeling can be expressed through a range of totally different colours, such as jealousy or sheer anger (which we call seeing red) …
gelb vor Eifersucht werden (German) to become yellow with jealousy
svartsjuk (Swedish) black ill (i.e. jealousy)
groen van jaloezie zien (Dutch) to be very jealous (lit. to see green from jealousy)
a se face roşu de mînic (Romanian) to become furious (lit. to turn pink with rage)
doprowadzić kogoś do białej gorączki(Polish) to make someone angry (lit. to lead someone into a white fever)
There has not been a convincing argument or set of rules by which we can collectively approach the use of colour in language and this has its merits. In a world where languages die at the rate of one a fortnight (out of the existing range of approximately 6800 languages) diversity is more than ever the critical determinant.