Translation musings: Oh, the bronze skies…!

Feb 23, 2016 | Language, Miscellaneous, Musings

coloursBelieve it or not, in Ancient Greece the sky was not bright blue. It was bronze. Ancient Greeks were not colour blind, but instead of thinking in colours, they thought in a scale of brightness – and to them the sky seemed incredibly bright, just like shiny bronze plates.

However, we don’t have to go back to the ancient times in order to find different ways of looking at and naming colours. Many modern languages divide the colour spectrum up by different principles, which means that sometimes it’s not easy to find an equivalent for a given colour in another language.

One of the “problematic” areas is the distinction between green and blue. Some languages treat them as different shades of the same colour. For example, traditionally in Japanese, the word 青 (ao), could refer to both green and blue. Although in modern Japanese there is a word that means green (緑 – midori) and ao nowadays mostly refers to blue, there are some green-coloured objects that Japanese speakers name ao, such as fresh leaves or the traffic light that signals “go”.

Talking about blue is a tricky thing in Russian, too. While in English the word blue can describe bright skies and deep sees alike, in Russian one must specify if the colour in question is light blue (голубой – goluboy) or dark blue (синий – siniy), there isn’t one word that would cover both.

Russian is not the only language that has two words for one colour. Hungarians use two words for red, but in this case the distinction is not based on the shade of the colour. The two words, piros and vörös have different connotations and could actually describe the same shade of red, depending on the situation. Blood, hair, fire and generally, various things associated with fighting, revolution or passion are vörös, while things that bear more positive meanings such as a healthy face or a fresh apple are piros.


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