How people define colors depend on their native language. There are peoples that have words for colors in terms of “dark” and “light”. For them, it is enough to name basic colors. But for many people in the Western world (especially designers and marketing professionals) there is a need to describe colors such as eggplant purple or stone red. Defining turquoise can be tricky – it can vary from a clear shade of blue to a bluish/green hue.
In his excellent book "Looking at language through glasses – how words color the world" (Spectrum, 2012) Guy Deutscher shows that people around the world distinguish between colors, even if they do not have specific names for hues of color.
Funny enough, description of colors was not taken seriously since the subject was mentioned by Gladstone. He stated that neither the color of the sea not the sky was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. For sure the ancient Greeks were not color blind – so what is the issue?
A large-scale ethnic research shows that many civilizations have limited vocabulary to define a multitude of colors. However, they were perfectly able to distinguish between one hue of blue and another one shade of blue.
Lazarus Geiger already identified in the beginning of the 19th century that words for colors in many cultures follow the same pattern. It starts with black/for dark and light. It is followed by red, yellow, green, and blue.
Berlin and Kay have confirmed this for many more languages in the 1960s. Deutscher concentrated on the transgression from blue to green, explaining why the Japanese “green”' traffic light looked blue in Western eyes.
The word “khaki" is used in Belgium for a pale shade of green, while the term in neighboring the Netherlands describes a kind of desert sand light brown. Go figure!
For marketing professionals and graphic designers, it would be great if there would be an international code of colors. This would enable us to refer to and understand terms such as “winter blue” (a grayish blue hue, popular in Europe for websites) or “spring green” (a bright light green that is especially popular with eco-friendly companies).
(Image courtesy of hdw.eweb4.com)