Blue is arbitrary

by lsusr1 min read14th Mar 20217 comments

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Philosophy of LanguageWorld Modeling
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When I was 13, the coolest thing in the world was Seto Kaiba summoning a Blue-Eyes White Dragon.

The name "Blue-Eyes White Dragon" is a translation of the Japanese "青眼の白龍".

  • "龍" means "dragon".
  • "白" means "white".
  • "の" turns the previous word into an adjective.
  • "眼" means "eyes".
  • "青" has no English equivalent.

The word "青" heralds back to a time before the adoption of green (緑) in the Heian period. I speculate that before the Heian period the primary colors used to be white, black, red, gold and 青. "青" is usually translated as "a color spanning blue or green". But to define "青" in terms of blue and is to contort it into a foreign ontology. We don't define "blue" as "a color spanning голубой and синий".

To us, "blue" is a singular color with an ideal RGB value around 0x0000ff.

If you asked a pre-Heian Japanese peasant to imagine the color 青 then ze wouldn't imagine the modern colors blue and green side-by-side. Ze would picture a single color. We can't look up how a pre-Heian Japanese person pictured 青 but we can look up what 青 looks like in modern Japanese by searching for it on Google.

For comparison, here are the corresponding English results for "blue".

At first glance, these colors appear similar—and they are. But, conceptually, they are derived from different things. The first (top left) image of Japanese 青 is lighter than the equivalent image of English blue. 青 is the color of the sky as seen between clouds or reflected by the ocean. "Blue" is the color of indigo dye and blue jeans. That's why we have to specify the "sky blue" variant in English. "Blue" is the color of blue pigment.

What about the Chinese 青 from which the Japanese 青 is derived?

The Chinese results for "青" are closer to turquoise than to blue AND they include images of sky and water like the Japanese results. The things associated with the color 青 are more similar between Japanese and Chinese even though the absolute value of the colors are more similar between Japanese and English. 青 is the color of nature and plants. Blue is the color of the future and pants.

I hypothesize the Japanese 青 used to be the same as the Chinese 青 but the Japanese ontology of colors drifted towards the European concept of blue due to greater cultural influences from the West.

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It would have been interesting if the XKCD color survey would be repeated in other languages (or geographies). Anyway, I think it is relevant to the topic here: https://blog.xkcd.com/2010/05/03/color-survey-results/ 

See

The color blue has other interesting associations too. You mention it as the color of the future, but in English it's also the color of sadness. In fact, notice how future-blue is quite frequently a color associated with emotionless machines, sterile broken utopias, oppressive orderliness, coldness, and similar unpleasantnesses. Due to movie making's need for visual contrast this also resulted in the color of chaos, happiness, warmth, and life becoming orange, even if it hadn't that association before (I don't know whether it did).

Curiously, here in Brazil there's some association between blue and happiness, not of the effusive kind, more that of a calm contentment. The lyrics for a famous song by Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia puts it so (my translation):

Blue as the color of the sea
Tim Maia
  
"Ah! If the whole world could hear me
I have much to tell
Saying that I learned
And in life
We must understand
That one is born to suffer
While the other laughs
  
But who suffers
Always must seek
At least come to find
A reason to live
To see in life some motivation
To dream
To have a dream wholly blue
Blue as the color of the sea
  
But who suffers
Always must seek
At least come to find
A reason to live
To see in life some motivation
To dream
To have a dream wholly blue
Blue as the color of the sea"

English has different words for those two colors, too, "blue" and "cyan". Also, I don't think "Eurocentric paint" is a thing. Paint is not an idea.

English has different words for those two colors, too, "blue" and "cyan".

Languages have many words, but some of them are more... native... then others. How often do non-specialists use the word? How many 10-years old kids would recognize the word?

If you ask 10-years old kids, on a sunny day, what color is sky, I believe a typical Russian kid would say "голубое", but a typical American kid would say "blue" (not "cyan"). I think so; neither is my first language.

EDIT: Also, put "blue sky" in Google Translate. Then do a reverse translation; it's "blue sky" again.

So, the thing is that English technically has the word "cyan", but regardless, the American sky is blue; only the ink in printers is cyan.

"Cyan" isn't a basic color term in English; English speakers ordinarily consider cyan to be a variant of blue, not something basically separate. Something that is cyan could also be described in English as "blue". As opposed to say, red and pink -- these are both basic color terms in English; an English speaker would not ordinarily refer to something pink as "red", or vice versa.

Or in other words: Color words don't refer to points in color space, they refer to regions, which means that you can look at how those regions overlap -- some may be subsets of others, some may be disjoint (well -- not disjoint per se, but thought of as disjoint, since obviously you can find things near the boundary that won't be judged consistently), etc. Having words "blue" and "cyan" that refer to two thought-of-as-disjoint regions is pretty different from having words "blue" and "cyan" where the latter refers to a subset of the former.

So, it's not as simple as saying "English also has a word cyan" -- yes, it does, but the meaning of that word, and the relation of its meaning to that of "blue", is pretty different. These translated words don't quite correspond; we're taking regions in color space, and translating them to words that refer to similar regions, regions that contain a number of the same points, but not the same ones.

The bit in the comic about "Eurocentric paint" obviously doesn't quite make sense as stated -- the division of the rainbow doesn't come from paint! -- but a paint set that focused on the central examples of basic color terms of a particular language could reasonably be called a that-language-centric paint set. In any case the basic point is just that dividing up color space into basic color terms has a large cultural component to it.

"Eurocentric paint" is an imprecise phrase. I first read it as meaning "traditionally-used European paints", with the implication that other cultures chose their colors based on different paints. But the rest of the post makes clear it's the idea of basing colors on paints that's allegedly Eurocentric; so the better phrasing might be "Eurocentric fixation on paint".

 

I was taught in (US) school that the primary colors were red, yellow, and blue and the secondaries were green, orange and purple (which matches the 'rainbow' in the comic, though the 'rainbow' I learned was ROYGBIV).  Per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_theory#Traditional_color_theory, this only works with paint:

One reason the artist's primary colors work at all is due to the imperfect pigments being used have sloped absorption curves, and change color with concentration...  Another reason the correct primary colors were not used by early artists is they were not available as durable pigments. Modern methods in chemistry were needed to produce them.

Granted, I was taught those colors in conjunction with being given paint to play with, which is a good reason to teach them. But it's still a bit striking that at no point in my education was I taught any other set of primary colors, except implicitly by picking RGB colors in MS Paint (an ironic name, in context).

I'm pretty sure that the common intuition among my classmates, way back in childhood, was that the first-tier colors were red, yellow, blue and green.  This turns out to be supported by a relatively sophisticated color theory based neither on natural occurrences of colors nor on any means of producing colors but rather the brain's fundamental abstractions for processing them.