By Victoria D’Andrea
The other blue
It’s crazy how language shapes your reality.
On our second day at SCA we had a talk from Ben the Buddhist, who told us how Ancient Greek used to have 5 different words for love. They all mean love, but refer to different kinds of love – erotic, affectionate, familiar, enduring and playful (though some websites include up to 3 additional types).
When I first heard this fact I had trouble coming to terms with the notion, but reflecting on it later on at home I realised this is not at all uncommon. On the contrary, this happens quite a lot across languages. As a bilingual, I have come across similar occurrences across my two languages (Italian and English).
The one example that I think merits to be mentioned (and that I can think of at the moment) is blue; in Italian we have two blues. It can sometimes be hard to explain, but with time I think I have conjectured a reasonable explanation.
So, our other blue is called azzurro, and is really just a lighter blue. Some people will say, well, we have different types of blue as well! Actually, we have loads of words for different shades of blue.
But for us they are literally different colours. If you point towards a light blue painting and describe it as blue, many people will correct you telling that, in fact, it is azzurro.
Our rainbow includes the two distinctive blues, making the Italian rainbow slightly different from the English one (I must admit, I literally just realised this while looking at the English’s version of the rainbow now). That really blows my mind. I always thought the rainbow was universal … now I discover that the UK one has two shades of purple – unless Google is misleading me for some reason.
If it is still not clear, I have another approach. Consider red, orange and yellow. If you think about it, these colours are really similar… is yellow simply not a lighter version of orange, and orange a lighter version of red? Indeed, sometimes it is even hard to determine whether a certain colour is yellow or orange. But the other colours are extremely different between themselves. So why do we feel the need to include three relatively similar colours?
In that same way, the Italians (and French if I am not mistaken) see azzurro.
And, by the way, the same does not work for green. Light and dark green are both considered the same colour.
Now that I’ve had this discussion a number of times with people from different nationalities, I too have come to wonder why we have found it necessary to have two different names for what in most other languages they only feel the need for one.
But I had never questioned it while living in Italy, it just seemed natural and the difference quite obvious.
Having reflected so much this past week on the power of words on people’s lives, I think this is a great example how even small things change the way people view and experience the world around them.