Mozambique

Color and Language

Many people are surprised to learn that different languages do not consider the basic colors to be the same. Some New Guinea Highland languages, for example, still have terms only for black and white (perhaps better translated as “dark” and “light”). Hanuno'o language, spoken in the Philippines, has only four basic color words: black, white, red and green. Pirahã language, spoken by an Amazonian tribe, is said to have no fixed words for colors. According to linguist Dan Everett, if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, “This looks like blood”. Some languages have color distinctions which are, well, foreign to native English speakers:

  • Latin originally lacked a generic color word for “gray” and “brown” and had to borrow its words from Germanic language sources.
  • Biblical Hebrew had no word for blue.
  • Navajo has one word for both grey and brown and one for blue and green. It has two for black, however, distinguishing the color of “coal” from that of “darkness”.
  • Russian, Italian, and Greek  have different basic words for darker and lighter shades of blue. 
  • Hungarian has two different basic red words – bordó (darker reds) and piros (lighter reds.)
  • Shona language (a Bantu language from Southern Africa) has no one word for our “green” concept; they have one word for yellowish-green, and a different word for bluish-green.
  • Hindi has no standard word for the color “gray”. However, lists for child or foreigner Hindi language learning include “saffron” [केसर] as a basic color.
  • In Gaelic glas can mean both “grey” and “green”– glasbheinn is “green mountain”; glais-fheur is “green grass.”