The color blue may be the most complicated hue in the spectrum. While it may be the most popular color in the world, the color blue means different things to different people. Take, for example, this lovely color:
What color is this? If you’re a native English speaker you might call it baby blue, but if you’re Japanese you have a more specific word for this beautiful shade and it’s mizu, which translates as “water.” As The Ohio State University described, “English speakers have ‘light blue,’ sure. But ‘mizu’ is its own color, not merely a shade of another. It’s similar to how people in the United States use ‘magenta,’ rather than ‘purplish-red.’”
The unique language difference came to light as part of a collaborative study on language between researchers from Japan and The Ohio State University. Specifically, the study compared Japan’s modern color terminology to words used in the United States. To come to their findings, researchers asked 57 native Japanese speakers to name the colors on cards placed before them. No modifiers such as “light” or “dark” were allowed. In total, the study’s participants used 93 unique color terms.
While researchers said the identification of basic long-standing color terms such as red, green, or black, came as no surprise, the use of “mizu” by almost every study participant did, thus leading researchers to suggest that term should be included among 12 generally accepted basic Japanese color terms.
“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,” said Angela Brown, one of the researchers on the project. “In Japan, ‘mizu’ is as different from ‘blue’ as ‘green’ is from ‘blue.’”
Brown added that the study of color is fundamentally about “how words come to be associated with things – all things that exist, from teacups to love.”
But even before this particular study, blue has had a bit of a bizarre place in language. In a 2015 episode of Radiolab, they discussed the very odd color descriptions in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” In the classic, the poet describes honey as the color green, and the ocean as the “wine-dark sea.” He never mentions the world blue. As IFLScience reported, the first mention of blue in any language appeared only 4,500 years ago and because of this, people before this time might not have been able to even see the color at all. Imagine then, all the colors we can’t even perceive yet because we have no word for them.