When is blue green, and when is it grue?: Background information when reading Through the Language Glass

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Through the Language Glass

Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

by Guy Deutscher

Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher X
Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2010, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2011, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Beyond the Book:
When is blue green, and when is it grue?

Print Review

blue Deutscher has much to say about the color "blue": its presence or absence in a language or culture, its sister-color, "green" with which it combines as a single hue in some languages, and notes that it is the color most difficult for children to learn.

Did you know?

  • Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green; when linguists discuss this combined color they refer to it as grue.
  • Vietnamese, Thai and Korean have one word for green and blue; as do the Pashtun people of Afghanistan and N.W. Pakistan.
  • Japanese has a word for blue and green but the word for blue is often used for colors that English speakers would consider green such as traffic lights and unripe fruit.
  • In traditional Celtic languages such as Welsh, the word glas could refer to blue but also some shades of green and grey
  • Ancient Greek lacked a word for blue (other than kyanos, the root of cyan, which was used to describe dark blue enamel), thus Homer referred to the sea as "wine-dark".
  • In Arabic the word for blue is azrap and green is akhdar, however the color of the sky is often referred to as akhdar in classical poetry.
  • In Sudan it is considered impolite to use the word black, aswad, in reference to skin color. So, darker-skinned Arabs are called akhdar (green) while black Arabs and Africans are azrap (blue).
  • Many Turkik languages distinguish between kök as the color of the sky, sea and green plants, and jasâl, the color of man-made green things.
  • Russian treats light blue as a separate color from plain or dark blue (in a similar way that English distinguishes between red and pink).

Blue isn't the only slippery color. The German makers of this online color-naming quiz assert that culture (region) and gender affect what we see. I was surprised at how difficult it was to decide which color was what.


Disappearing Languages
Deutscher repeatedly demonstrates the crucial importance of the study of rare languages, and laments the rate at which these languages are being lost. National Geographic reports, "Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth - many of them not yet recorded - may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain." National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project identifies, documents and maps endangered languages in an effort to record the speakers' threatened culture.


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Article by Jo Perry

This article was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the August 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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