sea green

Distinguishing blue from green in language

The English language makes a distinction between blue and green but some languages do not. Of these, quite a number, mostly in Africa, do not distinguish blue from black either, whilst there are a handful of languages that do not distinguish blue from black but have a separate term for green. Also, some languages treat light (often greenish) blue and dark blue as separate colors, rather than different variations of blue, while English does not.

According to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's 1969 study Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, distinct terms for brown, purple, pink, orange and grey will not emerge in a language until the language has made a distinction between green and blue. In their account of the development of color terms the first terms to emerge are those for white/black (or light/dark), red and green/yellow.

Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green, instead using a cover term for both (when the issue is discussed in linguistics, this cover term is sometimes called grue in English). For example, in Vietnamese both tree leaves and the sky are xanh (to distinguish, one may use xanh lá cây "leaf grue" for green and xanh dương "ocean grue" for blue). In the Thai language, เขียว (kʰiaw) means green except when referring to the sky or the sea, when it means blue; เขียวชอุ่ม (kʰiaw'sum), เขียวขจี (kʰiawkʰchi), and เขียวแปร๊ด (kʰiawpaerkʰ) have all meant either intense blue or garish green, although the latter is becoming more usual as the language 'learns' to distinguish blue and green. Chinese has a word 青 (qīng) that can refer to both, though it also has separate words for blue (蓝 / 藍, lán) and green (绿 / 綠, ). The Korean word 푸르다 (pureuda) can mean either green or blue. In Japanese, the word for blue (青 ao) is often used for colors that English speakers would refer to as green, such as the color of a traffic signal meaning "go". Some Nguni languages of southern Africa, including Tswana utilize the same word for blue and green. In traditional Welsh (and related Celtic languages), glas could refer to blue but also to certain shades of green and grey; however, modern Welsh is tending toward the 11-color Western scheme, restricting glas to blue and using gwyrdd for green and llwyd for grey. Similarly, in Irish, glas can mean various shades of green and grey (like the sea), while liath is grey proper (like a horse), and the term for blue proper is gorm (like the sky or Cairngorm mountains). In Old Norse the word blá was also used to describe black (and the common word for people of African descent was thus blámenn 'blue/black men'). In Swedish, blå, the modern word for blue, was used this way until the early 20th century.


Russian does not have a single word referring to the whole range of colors denoted by the English term "blue." Instead, it traditionally treats light blue (голубой, goluboy) as a separate color independent from plain or dark blue (синий, siniy), with all 7 "basic" colors of the spectrum (red - orange - yellow - green - (голубой цвет / goluboy / light blue, does not equal cyan) - (синий / siniy / dark blue) - violet) while in English the light blues like azure and cyan are considered mere shades of "blue" and not different colors. To better understand this, consider that English makes a similar distinction between "red" and light red (pink, which is considered a different color and not merely a kind of red), but such a distinction is unknown in several other languages; for example, both "red" (红 / 紅, hóng) and "pink" (粉红, fěn hóng, lit. "powder red") have traditionally been considered varieties of a single color in Chinese.

Similarly English descriptions of rainbows have often distinguished between blue or turquoise and indigo , the latter of which is often described as dark blue or ultramarine.


Romanian language treats light blue ("bleu"), blue ("albastru") and dark-blue ("bleu-marin" or "bleomarin") as different words.


Italian distinguishes blue ("blu") and green ("verde"). There are also two words for light blue (e.g. sky's color) : "azzurro" and "celeste". "Azzurro" is considered a hyponym of "blu". "Celeste" literally means "(the color) of the sky" and is used as synonym of "azzurro".


French distinguishes blue ("bleu") and green ("vert") There are a term for light blue: "celest"


In the Greek language, there are different names for light and dark blues/greens: a) γαλάζιο for light blue, b) ουρανί for sky blue, c) θαλασσί for sea blue, d) παγωνί for green-blue, e) τυρκουάζ for turquoise, f) μπλε for blue, g) πράσινο for green, h) κυπαρισσί for dark green, i) λαχανί for lime green, j) αμυγδαλί/φουντουκί (αθασί in Cyprus) for light green and many others such as λαδί and χακί for khaki.

Also: κυανό for azure and βιολέ/βιολετί for violet blue (which is, however, usually considered as a shade of purple, rather than blue).

As a rule, though, all a) to f) are accepted as shades of blue, and g) to j) as shades of green, and the separate names exist mostly to distinguish between different shades, rather than between different colors.


A difference is made between vihreä (green) and sininen (blue). Turquoise or teal (turkoosi or sinivihreä) is considered to be a separate, intermediate, color between green and blue, and black (musta) is also differentiated from blue.

The name for color blue, sininen is shared with other Baltic-Finnic languages and is thus dated to the era of the Proto-Baltic-Finnic language (ca. 1000 years old). However, it is also shared with the unrelated language Russian (синий, siniy), suggesting that it is a loanword. The word vihreä (viher-, archaic viheriä, viheriäinen) is related to vehreä "verdant" and vihanta "green", and viha "hate", originally "poison". It is not shared with Estonian, in which it is roheline, probably related with the Finnish word ruoho "grass". However, the form viha does have correspondences in related languages as far as Permic languages, where it means not only poison but "bile" or "green or yellow". It has been originally loaned from an Indo-Iranian protolanguage and is related to Latin virus "poison". Furthermore, the word musta "black" is also of Baltic-Finnic origin.


Like Russian and Italian, Hebrew has a separate name for light blue (תכלת, "t'chelet") - the color of the sky.


It has been argued that Turkish treats dark or navy blue (lacivert, curiously from the same root as English azure and lapis lazuli) as a separate color from plain or light blue (mavi). Mavi is etymologically originated from the Arabic word ma'i, which meant "like water" (ma' being the Arabic word for water) and lacivert is originated from lajvard, which was accounted as an expensive gem with the color of navy blue. Some historians argue that lajvard was the Persian name for lapis lazuli, although there is no solid evidence to prove this claim right. In Shamanism, the pre-Islamic religion of Turks, Blue is the color that represented the East as opposed to Red, as well as the Zodiac Aquarius (Water). A characteristic tone of blue, Turquoise, was much used by the Turks for their traditional decorations and jewelry.


Vietnamese usually does not use separate words for green and refers to that color using a word that can also refer to blue. In Vietnamese, blue and green are denoted by xanh; blue is specifically described as "xanh like the sky" (xanh da trời) and green as "xanh like the leaves" (xanh lá cây).

Modern Vietnamese occasionally does employ the term "xanh lam" (in which the second syllable derives from the Chinese: 蓝, as explained further below) for "blue".


The modern Chinese language has the blue-green distinction (蓝 lán for blue and 绿 for green); however, another word which predates the modern vernacular, qīng is also used. It can refer to either blue or green, or even (though much less frequently) to black, as in xuánqīng (where refers to black). For example, the Flag of the Republic of China is today still referred to as qīng tiān, bái rì, mǎn dì hóng ("Blue Sky, White Sun, Whole Ground Red" — ); whereas qīng cài is the Chinese word for "green vegetable".


The Japanese word , a very similar kanji character as the Chinese qīng above, can refer to either blue or green depending on the situation. Modern Japanese also has a word for , although this was not always so. Ancient Japanese did not have this distinction: the word midori only came into use in the Heian period, and at that time (and for a long time thereafter) midori was still considered a shade of ao. Educational materials distinguishing green and blue only came into use after World War II, during the Occupation: thus, even though most Japanese consider them to be green, the word ao is still used to describe certain vegetables, apples and vegetation. Ao is also the name for the color of a traffic light, "green" in English. However, most other objects—a green car, a green sweater, and so forth—will generally be called midori. Japanese people also sometimes use the English word "green" for colors. The language also has several other words meaning specific shades of green and blue.


The native Korean word 푸르다 (Revised Romanization: pureu-da adj.) may mean either blue or green, or bluish green. This word 푸르다 is used as in 푸른 하늘 (pureun haneul, blue sky) for blue or as in 푸른 숲 (pureun sup, green forest) for green. Distinct words for blue and green are also used; 파란 (paran adj.), 파란색/파랑 (paransaek/parang n.) for blue, 초록 (chorok adj./n.), 초록색 (choroksaek n. or for short, 녹색 noksaek n.) for green. However, in the case of a traffic light, paran is used for the green light meaning go, even though the word is typically used to mean blue. Cheong 청 is also used for both blue and green. It is a loan from Chinese (靑, pinyin: qing) and is used in the proper name Cheong Wa Dae (청와대 or Hanja: 靑瓦臺), the Blue House, which is the executive office and official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea.

Celtic languages

The boundaries between blue and green are not the same in Welsh and English. The word glas is usually translated as "blue". It can also refer, variously, to the color of the sea, of grass, or of silver. The word gwyrdd is the standard translation for "green".

Glas (same spelling) is, comparably, the translation for "green" in Irish and Breton, with specific reference to plant hues of green; other shades would be referred to in Modern Irish as uaine or uaithne. In Middle Irish and Old Irish, glas was a blanket term for colors ranging from green to blue to various shades of grey (i.e. the glas of a sword, the glas of stone, etc).

In Modern Irish the word for "blue" is gorm – a borrowing of the Early Welsh word gwrm, now obsolete, meaning "dark blue" or "dusky". A relic of the original meaning ("dusky") survives in the Irish term daoine gorm, meaning "Black people".

Kurdish, Kazakh and Pashto

In Kurdish the word "şîn" (pronounced sheen), meaning "blue", is used for green things in nature like leaves, grass, and eyes. However, there is another word, "kesk", which is used for other green things, for instance in the Kurdish flag.

The Kazakh language, like many Turkic languages, makes the same distinction, with kök as the word for the color of the sky, the sea, and green plants, but jasâl as the color for man-made green things.

Pashto uses the same word, "sheen", as in Kurdish to denote blue as well as green. "Shinkay", a word derived from "sheen", means greenery but "sheen asman" means blue sky. When there is ambiguity, it is common to ask (as in Vietnamese), "'sheen' like the sky?" or "'sheen' like plants?"


Zulu uses the word "-luhlaza" (the prefix changes according to the class of the noun) for "blue/green".


Single words for blue/green are also found in Mayan languages; for example in the Yukatek Maya language "blue/green" is "yax".

Lakhota Sioux

In the Lakhota Sioux Language, The word Tĥo is used for both blue and green.


In Portuguese, the word "azul" means blue and the word "verde" means green. Besides "azul-claro", meaning light-blue, and "azul-escuro", meaning dark-blue, more distinction can be made between several types of blue: for instance, "azul-celeste" means sky-like blue, "azul-marinho" means deep-sea-like blue and "azul-turquesa" means turquoise-like blue. One can also make the distinction between "verde-claro", meaning light-green, and "verde-escuro", meaning dark-green, and more distinctions between several qualities of green: for instance, "verde-oliva" means olives-like green and "verde-esmeralda" means emerald-like green.

Tupian languages

Tupian languages did not originally differ between the two colors, though they may now as a result of interference of Spanish (in the case of Guaraní) or Portuguese (in the case of Nheengatu). The Tupi word obý ([oβɨ]) meant both as do the Guarani hovy (ɦɔvɨ).

Yebamasa (Tucano)

The Yebamasa (Rio Piraparana - Vaupés - SE-Colombia) use the term sumese for blue/green. The letter "u" is spoken like the German "ü". (Fieldword Deltgen/Scheffer in 1977)


Speakers of Filipino most commonly use the borrowed Spanish words for blue and green - asul (from Spanish azul) and berde (from Spanish verde), respectively. Although the borrowed words are much more common in use, the Tagalog language actually has separate terms for these, as well: bughaw for blue and luntian for green.

An adult joke that would be referred to as a blue joke in English is called a "green joke" in Tagalog.

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