Grue and bleen: the blue-green distinction and its implications

« previous post | next post »

When I started to learn Mandarin more than half a century ago, it was easy for me to master lán 蓝/ 藍 ("blue") and lǜ 绿 / 綠 ("green").  But as I became better acquainted with Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, I was troubled by the word qīng 青, which seemed to straddle and include both blue and green.

The character depicts the budding of a young plant and it could be understood as "verdant", but the word is used to describe colors ranging from light and yellowish green through deep blue all the way to black, as in xuánqīng (Chinese: 玄青). 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"—Chinese: 天,白日,滿地紅); whereas qīngcài (青菜) is the Chinese word for "green bok choy". A cucumber is known as either huángguā (Chinese: 黃瓜) "yellow melon" or qīngguā* (Chinese: 青瓜) "green melon", which is more commonly used in Cantonese. Qīng 青, was the traditional designation of both blue and green for much of the history of the Chinese language, while 藍 lán ('blue') originally referred to the indigo plant. However, the character 綠 ('green'), as a particular 'shade' of qīng applied to cloth and clothing, has been attested since the Book of Odes (1000 to 600 B.C.) (e.g., the title of Ode 27 《邶風·綠衣》 'Green Upper Garment' in the Airs of Bei). As a part of the adoption of modern Vernacular Chinese as the social norm, replacing Classical Chinese, the modern terms for blue and green are now more commonly used than qīng as standalone color terms, although qīng is still part of many common noun phrases. The two forms can also be encountered combined as 青藍 and 青綠, with 青 being used as an intensifier.


[VHM:  Cant. *ceng1gwaa1]

It's interesting that this merging of what we in English refer to as two separate colors is quite widespread among the languages of the world, as I learned yesterday from this new article:

"Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language:  The confounding consistency of color categories", by Chelsea Wald (October 3, 2019)

As suggested by the celebrated, long-running studies of Paul Kay and Brent Berlin on basic color terms (there was a 1969 monograph with that title, but their investigations on this subject have essentially continued to this day), the overall uniformity of human cognition concerning color has a biological basis.  These findings seem to support the controversial hypothesis of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), who proposed that “The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds".

Recent research, such as that carried out by Anna Franklin, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Sussex, and her colleagues, indicates that — as the linguistic competency of young children develops — their processing of colors is modified.  This transformation sheds an unexpected, subtle light on the perennial debate over nature versus nurture.

The actual complexity of something so seemingly simple as our recognition of different colors is not merely a matter of language, but has ramifications for thought at the deepest level, as witnessed by Nelson Goodman's "New riddle of induction":

Grue and bleen are examples of logical predicates coined by Nelson Goodman in Fact, Fiction, and Forecast to illustrate the "new riddle of induction" – a successor to Hume's original problem. These predicates are unusual because their application is time-dependent; many have tried to solve the new riddle on those terms, but Hilary Putnam and others have argued such time-dependency depends on the language adopted, and in some languages it is equally true for natural-sounding predicates such as "green." For Goodman they illustrate the problem of projectible predicates and ultimately, which empirical generalizations are law-like and which are not. Goodman's construction and use of grue and bleen illustrates how philosophers use simple examples in conceptual analysis.

How we perceive, divide up, and name the colors of the spectrum turns out to be a profound physiological, psychological, and philosophical problem, not merely a matter of looking at a band of pretty shades and hues — making color and its experiencing one of the most exciting aspects of what it means to be human.



"What would Whorf say?" (1/3/06)

"Trump translated" (8/31/16)

[h.t. Fraser Howie]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    Although I was initially surprised to learn that "xanh" referred either to blue or green (xanh like the sky or xanh like the leaf) in Vietnamese, it was also surprising how quickly I got used to it. Does that imply there is something "natural" about combining blue and green? Meanwhile, I never did get used to that weird distinction in Russian between two types of blue, despite years of exposure.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 9:31 am

    I remember once on the beach in Sarasota, Florida having the strange sensation of not being able to decide whether the color of the sky that bright day was blue or green. At one moment I would look up at the sky and it would seem to be blue, at another moment it would seem to be light green. Even when I kept looking at it constantly for a considerable period of time, it would appear to be either light blue or light green, and sometimes with tinges of yellow on the green side of the range.

  3. Brian Spooner said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 9:55 am

    I had similar problems with these two colours as I was learning Persian, starting over 60 years ago now, and I think it extends throughout the Persianate world, which makes one wonder about its historical cultural origins.

  4. 中書侍郞 said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 10:27 am

    Professor Mair, having kindly provided us with a discussion of the sky-color qīng 青, do you think you could extend it to discuss the two other famous sky-colors in literary Sinitic: cāng 蒼 and xuán 玄? When referring to the sky, the former is also usually translated as blue, as in the famous line 天蒼蒼,野茫茫 "The sky so blue, the plains so vast." The latter is also used to describe the sky in the first line of the "Thousand Character Classic," which is equally difficult to translate into English color terms: 天地玄黄,宇宙洪荒 "The sky is ?dark and the earth ?dun-colored; space is boundless and time unbroken." In both cases, parallelism implies that the hue of the sky is not simply to be located within a particular band of a spectrum, but also suggests qualities of reflectance, diffusion—and perhaps even material structure or moral valence. Are these words colors in the strict sense, or do they represent visual correlates of other essential qualities (qīng 青: blue/green but also freshness/spotlessness; cāng 蒼: blue/gray but also age/vastness; xuán 玄: red/black but also obscurity/power)?

    The difficulty of finding qīng 青 on a palette seems akin the issues surrounding chlorós χλωρός "fresh/green" in Archaic Greek. Then there's the Homeric formula about the wine-dark sea (ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον), which seems as if it would translate quite well into xuán 玄, though perhaps a proper Clacissist could correct me.

  5. bratschegirl said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 10:47 am

    My husband and I have a long-running joke based on the fact that he sees certain colors as blue while I see them as green (colors such as celadon). I've always wondered to what extent this is just a difference in perception between two persons, and to what extent it might possibly be gender-related, there being such a markedly greater number of men than women with red-green color blindness (although he's not one of them).

  6. JB said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 10:47 am

    As far as 青 is concerned, 2 colours is an understatement, given that it extends all the way from "clear sky" to "dark black," pausing at green and blue in between.

  7. Frans said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 11:05 am

    @Jenny Chu
    Based on a quick search it seems to look a lot like the distinction between light blue and blue that we also pretty much make by default, so I assume there must be more to it than that. Would you please enlighten me?

  8. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 11:39 am

    According to Wiktionary, the first sense of the first acceptation of 青 is the English term "blue-green", of which "green-blue" is a synonym.

  9. Jon Lennox said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 12:20 pm

    @bratschegirl:There are in fact two different common variants of the human gene for the green color receptor, with slightly different frequency sensitivity. So this may indeed be a physiological difference between you and your husband!

  10. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    For a more familiar example of older usage of a basic color word preserved in a disturbing way, consider how the word "red" (which has been a basic color word for far longer than "orange" or "purple") is used in "red onion" and "red cabbage" and "red hair".

    For the Russian distinction between siniy and goluboy, compare the English distinction between red and pink. It's pretty easy to note the distinction between real blue blues and baby blues (with the same border cases as real reds and pinks).

  11. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

    The Welsh word 'glad' has a similarly wide range of applications. The University of Wales Welsh Dictionary [Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru @ gives these English equivalents"
    1. blue, azure, sky-blue, greenish blue, sea-green. 
    2. green, grass-coloured, bluish green, verdant; unripe (of fruit); covered with green grass, clothed with verdure or foliage. 
    3. light blue, pale-blue or pale-green, greyish-blue, slate-coloured, livid, pallid, pale;transparent (of water, glass, rain), crystal grey (of frost and ice), grey. 

  12. ktschwarz said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

    Still another literary Chinese color term, 翠, is famous for Boodberg's audacious declaration that no English word was adequate to translate it, and therefore he just made up a new one:

    The rich spectrum of Chinese chromatonymy, multilined and multibanded, has not received the attention it deserves. Most chromatonyms are not too well defined in our dictionaries, and translation equivalents are chosen haphazardly according to context, with little consideration paid to semantic nuances. Among the many Chinese color-terms crying for simple and effective rendering is the adjective TS'UI <ts'jwəd (C124, 'feathers', as semantic, +tsu<ts'jwət as phonetic) /A/, 'vivid green-blue-purple-black', originally descriptive of the glossy iridescent plumage of the kingfisher … 'Kingfisher-green' (-blue, -black, -brown) is an awkward polysyllabic way to translate TS'UI which may describe women's penciled eyebrows as well as foliage. … is there any reason why we should not use the term ALCEDINE (from L. alcedo, 'kingfisher') to designate exactly what TS'UI connotated to the Chinese?

    See background and further discussion by Matt at No-sword.

  13. Rick Rubenstein said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    The main difference between grue and bleen is that you are much more likely to be eaten by a grue.

  14. Thomas Rees said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 3:33 pm

    Tom Dawkes:

    'Glas', iawn?

  15. liuyao said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

    FWIW, there are two translations of the seven colors of the rainbow:


    (紅 may be replaced by 赤)

  16. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 4:45 pm

    I am acquainted with a family where the mother and two daughters appear to have two different green receptors, while the father and remaining daughter do not. The first group therefore strongly distinguishes colors that are not readily apparent to the second group. It led to lots of arguments about clothing, house painting, etc.

    An X chromosome with red and reddish-green receptors, inherited by a male as his sole X chromosome, leads to a somewhat color-blind male with poor distinction between red and green. A female with two X's like this would be the same. But a female with one of these and one of the regular red and green type will have *more* color distinction than average. (We did not genotype the family, but this is what all members had concluded after a number of tests and experiments.)

    There is at least one primate species where all males are color-blind, but around half of females see red and green as (most) humans do. Imagine the linguistics, if they had language. There's a whole area of perception only open to about half of females, and opaque to all males and the other half of females. Would there be words for red and green? Would those words be part of a female-only language subset? (Or would the existence of red and green be denied? Depends on the species' gender politics, I guess.)

  17. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 5:05 pm

    Thanks, Thomas Rees. I keep forgetting to check on predictive text errors. GLAS is what I meant.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 7:35 pm

    From a PRC M.A. student:

    The article about the color "青" reminds me that in Japanese, "青い(あおい) "means blue. (in our language textbook) But Takami sensei once told us that in Japan, the green traffic light is "青信号" (it can be abbreviated as "青"), which literally means blue light, and which makes her feel very weird. Certainly, we Chinese students would feel very natural about it. It seems that the words for color have gone through different routes of evolution from classical Chinese in Japan and China respectively.

  19. Chris Button said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 7:53 pm

    The character depicts the budding of a young plant

    To be more precise, the top component of 青 *tsʰáɲ is an abbreviated form of 生 *sràɲ which plays a phonetic role. The graphic form of 生 depicts a sprouting plant and is essentially originally the same form as 才, which depicts an unsprouted plant, just with the land (a flat line) beneath it as opposed to above it.

  20. Meg Wilson said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 7:55 pm

    "Grue" languages most commonly originate near the equator, where sun damage causes loss of blue perception. This is due to two mechanisms: lens brunescence, and disproportionate damage to the "blue" cones in the retina.

  21. JGS said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 8:49 pm

    My understanding is that Kay and Berlin's research refutes the Sapir-Whorf thesis. Sapir and Whorf argued that our particular language made us see the world differently from speakers from other languages. Kay and Berlin discovered from their research that all the many languages they studied used the same basic color term categories. From what I remember, it was blow to the linguistic relativists. I hope I have this right. I'm not a professional linguist, so I'd love to get some feedback on this.

  22. Nan said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 3:58 am

    you eat blin,
    grue eats you.

  23. ktschwarz said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 4:16 am

    OP: Berlin and Kay's "findings seem to support the controversial hypothesis of Benjamin Lee Whorf"

    Don't you mean challenge, not support? Berlin and Kay are big names on the universalist side of the debate, and their book was spurred by Kay's surprise at finding that Tahitian color terms were so similar to English, not arbitrarily different as Whorf had led him to expect. From a Whorfian point of view, a language could equally well have separate terms for red and yellow and a common term for blue-green, or a common term for red-yellow and separate terms for blue and green. Yet the former (grue) kind is very common and the latter is nonexistent.

    Kay's later experiments with color discrimination did find that language had a very slight, subtle effect: English speakers were about 5% faster at spotting differently colored squares when the difference was blue vs. green, compared to different greens. It's exciting that this could be measured at all, and especially that it was correlated with brain hemisphere, but 15-30msec is not much!

    Kay's interpretation of some of the perception experiments: "Sapir and Whorf were not totally wrong."

  24. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    @Victor's student: "But Takami sensei once told us that in Japan, the green traffic light is "青信号" (it can be abbreviated as "青"), which literally means blue light, and which makes her feel very weird."

    In some of the older areas of Tokyo, the "green" traffic light *is* actually blue!

    FWIW, green apples are also "ao" and not "midori". I asked my Japanese friend why and she said, "You ask the same questions my [3 year old, at the time] daughter does. They just are."

  25. R. Fenwick said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

    @Meg Wilson: do you have a citation for this claim? My understanding was that "grue" languages are simply quite common in general and can be found in most areas of the world regardless of geography. WALS appears to provide vague support for the idea, but (apart from the fact that WALS data aren't always necessarily trustworthy anyway) its green/blue/grue map shows only maybe ten languages lying outside the subtropical zone in any case, and five of those are from a single language family. I'd like to see a wider analysis including more languages from temperate zones. (Not least because every single one of the "grue" languages I personally know of is spoken in the temperate zone.)

  26. maidhc said,

    October 5, 2019 @ 10:31 pm

    It takes three numbers to describe a colour. One way of doing this is hue, saturation and intensity.

    English is a language where colour names are based mostly on hue, and to a lesser extent on intensity ("red" vs. "pink"). Other languages may base colour names more on intensity.

    In Irish, for example, "glas" means blue, green or grey with low saturation. "uaine" is a saturated green and "gorm" is a saturated blue. Similarly there are two different words for red, "rua" and "dearg".

    I used to have a copy of an article on this topic from some linguistics journal, but that was a few moves ago, so I'm not able to provide a citation right now.

  27. Meg Wilson said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 12:24 am

    R. Fenwick:

    Lindsey, D. T., & Brown, A. M. (2002). Color Naming and the Phototoxic Effects of Sunlight on the Eye. Psychological Science, 13(6), 506–512.

    Hardy, J. L., Frederick, C. M., Kay, P., & Werner, J. S. (2005). Color Naming, Lens Aging, and Grue: What the Optics of the Aging Eye Can Teach Us About Color Language. Psychological Science, 16(4), 321–327.

  28. AG said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 3:02 am

    Confusingly, the musician / Benihana scion Steve Aoki, whose surname surely must mean "green tree" (few trees are blue, right?) has written a memoir called Blue: "The Color of Noise".

  29. AJ Pitkänen said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 10:26 am

    I first discovered the peculiarity of qīng 青 in the Finnish subtitles of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where the famous sword 青冥劍 Qīng míng jiàn was translated as “Sininen syvyys” (“Blue Abyss”) while the English translation is “Green Destiny”. In the film, the sword does occasionally look somewhat turquoise, although I would definitely say green rather than blue (pic:

    I dug up the name of the sword in some other European languages, and so far it seems that Finnish was the only one that went with blue, while most seemed to translate the name based on the English. However, French seems to have omitted the colour entirely and simply called the sword Destinée.

    As an interesting side note, the dictionary definitions for 冥 míng are “dark”, “deep”, “underworld” etc., suggesting that the Finnish word for abyss/depth is closer to the original meaning than “destiny”. No idea if 冥 míng also carries the meaning of destiny somehow (perhaps we’re all destined for the underworld). The German translation is so far the only one I found with “underworld” (Grünes Schwert der Unterwelt) instead of “destiny”.

  30. V said,

    October 6, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

    That reminds me of the Bulgarian joke:
    Why are these prunes (сини сливи – blue [cherry plums]) red? Because they're green (unripe).
    I guess that joke could be in some way be modified to work with aubergines too, as they are "blue tomatoes", and the most common kind found in Bulgaria are also purple when ripe, like prunes.

  31. Rodger C said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:47 am

    What's red when it's green? A blackberry.

  32. BZ said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 1:21 pm

    The exact distinction between the two blues in Russian is not perfectly clear. For example the sky is generically light blue, but can be described dark blue on a clear low-humidity day, despite the fact that it is still lighter than most things that would ordinarily be on the dark-blue side of the divide.

    Also, it is my understanding that the color orange has not existed in most European languages until quite recently, which is why it's called some version of "orange" in most of them. I wonder what made the color so salient so recently (15th-16th century), and so universally. Was it the need to translate the new color into languages that had no word for it from whichever language got it first?. It doesn't seem to be the arrival of the orange (the fruit) itself, since it seems the color is much more recent than that.

  33. Rodger C said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 6:58 am

    Orange, as a fabric color at least, was generally called "flame-colored" in English up to (I think) the nineteenth century.

  34. Adrian said,

    October 8, 2019 @ 4:20 pm

    – The confusion between blue and green is a common matter for discussion, there often being disagreements about whether something is blue or green. In which case it's perhaps not surprising that some languages have a word which covers (aspects of) both.

    – I noticed when I was at school that some children seemed not to have (fully) incorporated orange into their word-spectrum, and would describe orange things as either yellow or red.

  35. Doug said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    It seems to me that "yellow" schoolbuses and the "yellow" lines in the middle of the road could just as plausibly be called "orange."

  36. Guan Yang said,

    October 9, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    I am reminded of the discussion of color in this Aeon piece from 2017 by Maria Michela Sassi: “The sea was never blue”

  37. ktschwarz said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    The Aeon piece repeats the urban legend that Gladstone, the 19th century scholar, thought the ancient Greeks were color-blind. Ha-ha, those dopey Victorians? Nope. Read this excellent debunking by Geoffrey Sampson instead. What Gladstone actually said was that ancient Greek did not lexically distinguish hues in the way that modern English does, and that the reason we moderns do is not because our eyes are different, but because our society trains us. ‘Painters know that there is an education of the eye for colour in the individual … this education subsists also for the race [=culture].’ Color vocabulary is specifically taught — songs on Sesame Street, for example — and kindergarteners are evaluated on it.

    As Berlin and Kay themselves recognized, cultures without dye technology — like Homeric Greece — have no need for words that distinguish hue specifically. On the other hand, Sampson argues, cultures that do use dyes — like Zhou dynasty China, roughly the same time period as Homer — would develop such vocabulary, and therefore the so-called "Five Colors" (black, red, qīng, white, yellow) are used in the Book of Odes in ways that seem familiar and normal to the modern European reader. I'd be interested to know if Professor Mair concurs with this analysis of the Book of Odes!

RSS feed for comments on this post