Friday, May 05, 2006

Language-dependent spectra

I just noticed that the sequence of colours in the visible electromagnetic spectrum seems to be named differently in English and German. In English, it generally appears to be red/orange/yellow/green/blue/indigo/violet (as in the mnemonic "Richard of York gave battle in vain."), whereas in German, it appears to be red/orange/yellow/light-green/dark-green/blue/violet (at least that is how I remember learning it in elementary school).

Now I wonder what the basic colours of the visible spectrum are called in other languages. In particular, I suppose they are rather different in languages that divide parts of the colour space differently anyway (such as, I believe, Gaelic and Russian, and probably lots of non-Indoeuropean languages). Does anybody have examples of how the spectrum is "different" in other languages?

Update: As a clarification: German-speakers don't call blue "dark-green" -- it's just that the conventional rendition of the colour spectrum in German splits the green part into two colour bands, whereas the English one does the same to the blue part. And a Franco-Canadian told me that in (Canadian) French it just is red/orange/yellow/green/blue/violet (six colours only).

5 comments:

Johan said...

It is the same in Swedish as in English.

Dick Thompson said...

There a primitive tribe somewhere in southeast asia that only has two color names, equivalent to "bright" and "dark". The first includes red orange and yellow and the second includes the rest. Years ago some researcher did a careful experiment with color slides and found that the tribespeople's idea of the canonical bright color was - bright red.

Anonymous said...

This is a well known issue in popular linguistics. Something about the Japanese calling blue and green the same thing...

Just use the wavelength.

Anonymous said...

And we apparently have seven colours in the (english) spectrum only because of Isaac Newton's superstition about having six colours (as in 666). Seven was a `holier' number.

Georg said...

Anonymous, do you have a reference for that statement regarding Newton? It sounds quite possible, given his occult leanings, but the rainbow was of course a well-known (if ill-understood) phenomenon even before Newton's time, so the convention of having seven colours could be much older, so it would be interesting to know if Newton indeed had anything to do with the conventional naming of the spectral colours.