The Color Blue and How We See It

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

Japanese speakers identify the color pictured here as mizu, but English speakers do not have an exact equivalent term for this color. Throughout history, some cultures have recognized and named colors that others do not.

Japanese speakers call this color mizu. This color has no equivalent English word. Some cultures recognize and name colors that others do not. This fact may give clues about how languages change over time.

Look at the color above. What would you call it?

If you said blue, you’re right. However, you may have decided to be more precise and call it light blue or sky blue, in order to distinguish it from other darker shades of blue. Either of those is correct, too, but all three answers recognize it as a shade of the color that English speakers call blue.   

When asked this same question, Japanese speakers answered that the color is mizu. Mizu, which is also the Japanese word for water, is seen by Japanese speakers as a color completely independent of the color we call blue. The results of a study just published in the Journal of Vision showed that Japanese speakers consider mizu to be a color all its own. As one of the authors of the study, Angela Brown, points out, “In Japan, mizu is as different from blue as green is from blue.

The Naming of Colors

In their study, researchers gave 57 native Japanese speakers cards, each of which had different colors on them. Participants were then asked to assign each color a unique name. They were not allowed to say a color was just a darker or lighter version of another color, such as dark red or light gray. The researchers found that almost everyone in the group said the color above was mizu. Based on this finding, the researchers think there is good evidence that to the Japanese, mizu is not simply a type of blue, but a color all its own. This is in the same way that English speakers see the color black as different from gray and not simply a very dark version of gray.

Linguists, people who study language, have long known that people in some cultures have color words that have no equivalent in other cultures. For example, along with mizu, the Japanese recognize a color called kon, which English speakers would likely identify as dark blue. There are examples of words like mizu in English, too. The colors magentateal, lavender, and peach have no equivalent words in Japanese. In fact, some other languages do not see blue and green as distinct colors, leading some people to coin the term grue to describe it.

The researchers in this study say that learning how different cultures identify colors can help us better understand how languages develop and change. Colors are much easier to describe, reproduce, and present to participants than other sorts of words, which makes it easier to compare how people speak in different cultures.

As co-author Angela Brown pointed out, “The study of color naming is fundamentally the study of how words come to be associated with things–all things that exist, from teacups to love.” Brown added, “The visual system can discern millions of colors. But people only describe a limited number of them and that varies depending on their community and the variety of colors that enter into their daily lives.”

Holi, a traditional spring festival that originated in India, is now also celebrated in other parts of the world. Here, a group of friends covered in colored powder participate in a celebration in The Hague, city in the Netherlands.

Holi, a traditional spring festival that originated in India, is now also celebrated in other parts of the world. Here, a group of friends covered in colored powder participate in a celebration in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands.

A Festival of Color

In March, people in India celebrate Holi. Holi, is an annual festival that began in the Hindu religion. It celebrates both the beginning of spring, as well as the triumph of good over evil. Holi is a joyous time. As part of the celebration, people throw a scented, colored powder called gulal at each other. By the end of the festivities, peoples’ clothes, skin, and hair are coated in vibrant color. The color blue is especially important to the celebration.

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, which means its adherents recognize and worship many different gods. The three most important Hindu gods are Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. The Hindu god Krishna is both an incarnation of the god Vishnu as well as a god on his own.


Krishna is typically shown as having dark-blue skin. A Hindu legend describes that when Krishna was only a baby, a demon tried to kill him by giving him poisoned milk. Luckily, the infant Krishna survived, but the poison turned the color of his skin blue. In fact, the name Krishna comes from the word Krsna in the Sanskrit language, which means black, dark, or dark blue.

When Krishna was a boy, the legend says, he was very sensitive about his skin’s color. He was convinced that a fair-skinned goddess named Radha could not possibly like him because of it. One day, Krishna was so upset that he complained to his mother, Yashoda, that it was unfair that he should be so dark while Radha should be so light. Yashoda had an idea. She suggested to her son that he simply go to Radha and color her face any way he wanted. Krishna took her advice, and when he colored Radha’s face, Krishna and Radha fell in love with each other. The holiday Holi commemorates Krishna’s coloring of Radha’s face.

Colors Used During  Holi

The four main colors used in the fragrant gulal powder during Holi are red, yellow, green, and blue. The red gulal represents love. Yellow is the color of turmeric, a root from a plant and one the main ingredients in traditional recipes for gulal. Green symbolizes spring and new beginnings. Blue, of course, is the color of the god Krishna. Some traditional sources of the blue color in gulal are indigo plant, berries, grapes, blue hibiscus, and jacaranda flowers.

The Egyptians were the first people in the ancient world to develop a blue dye. This footed dish, called a tazza, was made sometime between 1325-1400 B.C.E.

The Egyptians were the first people in the ancient world to develop a blue dye. This footed blue dish, called a tazza, was made sometime between 1325-1400 B.C.E.

Blue in the Ancient World

In 1858, William Gladstone, who would go on to become Britain’s prime minister, made a curious discovery. Gladstone studied the classic Greek epic poem The Odyssey by the poet Homer, paying special attention to the colors the poet mentioned. Gladstone found that Homer mentioned the color black nearly 200 times and white about 100 times. Other colors were used less often. Red was mentioned only about 15 times, and yellow and green about 10 times. To his surprise, the color blue was never mentioned—not even once.

As it turns out, the ancient Greeks were not alone in not having a word for the color blue. For example, the color blue is never mentioned in ancient Chinese stories. It is also not found anywhere in the Koran, the holy book of the religion Islam.

The Egyptians in Africa are credited with introducing the idea of blue to the ancient world. In ancient times, Egypt was the only world culture that had discovered how to produce blue dyes. It is not surprising, then, that the Egyptians were the first ancient civilization to have a word for the color blue. As other cultures acquired products from Egypt, they too developed their own words for this color.

Even today, there are still cultures that don’t recognize blue as a distinct color. One example is the Himba people of the African country Namibia. In one study, researchers showed members of the tribe twelve squares arranged into the shape of a circle. Eleven of the squares were green while one was blue. Surprisingly, participants had a very difficult time identifying which one of the twelve squares was different.

However, the Himba people have many words for the color green. The participants were again shown a circle of twelve colored squares. This time, all twelve were green, but one was a slightly different shade. Participants were now able to find the different color green quickly and easily.

Additional Resources

Read more about the study of how Japanese speakers identify colors at Ohio State University and the Journal of Vision.

Learn how people have thought about the color blue throughout history by reading an article at the New York Times or listening to a podcast at Radiolab.

How do people perceive color? Find out at Live Science and the New Zealand Association of Optometrists.

Additional Resources

Holi Celebration Photo: Flickr
Holi Celebration Photo License: Creative Commons 2.0

Egyptian Tazza Photo: Walters Art Museum
Egyptian Tazza Photo License: Public Domain