The Color of Language, the Language of Color

Monday Morning Musings:

“When a name for a color is absent from a language, it is usually blue. When a name for a color is indefinite, it is usually green. Ancient Hebrew, Welsh, Vietnamese, and, until recently, Japanese, lack a word for blue… The Icelandic word for blue and black is the same, one word that fits sea, lava, and raven.

It has been shown that the words for colors enter evolving languages in this order, nearly universally: black, white, and red, then yellow and green (in either order), with green covering blue until blue comes into itself. . .

Within every color lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of culture.”
–Ellen Meloy, quoted on Brainpickings

Sunrise over the Delaware River. West Deptford, NJ. ©️Merril D. Smith, 2021

I celebrate color, all the hues
of dawning light to grey or blue,
the color of the sky, the gulls that flew
before the morning moon to sparkle bright–
I celebrate delight

in things we name from time and before—
the universe of letters, we’re each a book—and more–
composed of fiery stars and stellar song. And all along
from there to here and back again, there is light—
I celebrate its flight

from stars, bird-winged it soars, beating hearts
twinkling, illuminating the night, and each day
through shadows, there is a glow, a gate, a portal
through which time circles, not black or white—
I celebrate the spotlight

the lens through which I see. My faulty illusions—
still part of me. And everywhere I go, I see Crow—
who sees much more. So, while we count, label, and navigate,
some things remain unseen. But I dream and write—
I celebrate me, color, language, light.

My older child has been a fellow at the Atiq Maker Kollel for the past fifteen weeks. Yesterday they did a Zoom celebration of their art projects. You can find out more about their project here. In a discussion by one of the other participants, there was a mention of the world being created from letters and language, and even our bodies composed of language. I had read the Brainpickings article earlier in the week, which made me think of color and language, and the naming of things.


Memorial Day seems much more than a week ago, but we went to a Lobster and Chardonnay event at a local winery that afternoon. This past weekend, we tasted some of the wine (only got through the whites) from a blind tasting box—a Mother’s Day gift from our children.


Last night we watched the Kennedy Center Honors, which we both enjoyed. The honorees were Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Dick van Dyke, Midori, and Garth Brooks. I couldn’t name a Garth Brooks song, but I even enjoyed his segment because he was so moved by the performers. Because of Covid restrictions, the TV program combined clips of filmed indoor and outdoor performances instead of the usual formal theater production. Some of the dance numbers worked very well that way.

I’m linking this to dVerse, Open Link Night.

88 thoughts on “The Color of Language, the Language of Color

  1. That’s fascinating information about how we name colours, Merril! I wonder what it means. I love your poem, especially these lines:

    ‘I celebrate the spotlight

    the lens through which I see. My faulty illusions—
    still part of me’

    We all see through our own lens but what we see can be very beautiful!

  2. Stunning snippit about color names – wonderful feline presence – but the keeper here for me: “everywhere I go, I see Crow — who sees much more” – no matter the names we ascribe to hues, shapes, densities, we are incapable of seeing the total that surrounds us in any moment. I put my trust in Crow keeping watch, a little envious of his flexibility in vantage points.

  3. I love this! Thinking of how the words in my collages get covered with paint and images, too haha. Very very cool. I’ve heard that before about the blue thing, and it amazes me because it’s one of the primary colors! How weird is that? I grew up thinking primary and secondary colors were like math, a fact of life, if that makes sense.

  4. Interesting that some languages lacked a name for blue since I’d imagine the color must have been around somehow (the sky?). I love your last line–“I celebrate me, color, language, light.” Yes to all of that! 🙂

  5. I found the quotes from the Brainpickings article fascinating. I’ve never thought about how language becomes assigned to colors. These lines from your poem particuarly resonated with me:

    So, while we count, label, and navigate,
    some things remain unseen. But I dream and write—
    I celebrate me, color, language, light.

    I just love the idea of celebrating myself, color, language, and light, preferably all at once!

  6. Blue is always the best selling color in clothing, so it’s curious to me that it could lack a name. But then again I’m always wondering if we all see the same colors or the same shapes…how can we ever know?

    Crow has been very present here as well. In voice and in flight.

    Glad to see you and your husband are out and about again! (K)

  7. I applaud your celebration,, especially of color. We did a d’Verse prompt on color recently, and I chose Red. I was amazed at its history. I think there could a college course on Color.

    • Thank you! I think it’s fascinating, too. From what I’ve read, blue seems to occur less frequently in the world around us than other colors. But it’s hard for me to imagine not having blue.

  8. From the beginning line, “I celebrate colors” to the affirmation at the end
    “I celebrate me, color, language, light.” I loved this write!
    PS: I watched the Kennedy Center Awards also…..and am absolutely in sync with you about Garth Brooks. I found it fascinating that he gave up a very successful career for about 10 years to help raise his young children and then came back to it. I agree….I so enjoyed watching his uninhibited reactions to those honoring him in song.

  9. I love the quote, it’s enlightening to me about how the word blue is excluded lol. It does make sense, though, why green would cover blue in that way. I can see that. My mom knows Hebrew but she always puts herself down as she hasn’t practiced/spoke it in years, but then when I hear her CONVERSE in Hebrew I tell her “C’mon, you’re at the very least conversationally fluent.”

    I had a point there and it was: It’s fascinating how some languages don’t have a word for blue including Hebrew. Now I know why I never heard blue much. 😀

    I also really love and enjoyed reading your poem. It’s so beautiful, swirling with delicate and fluent imagery like:

    “from stars, bird-winged it soars, beating hearts
    twinkling, illuminating the night, and each day
    through shadows, there is a glow, a gate, a portal
    through which time circles, not black or white—
    I celebrate the spotlight”

    It just feels so powerful!

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Lucy! I’m pleased you liked both the information and the poem.

      So is there still no word for blue in Hebrew? My family was not religious, so I never learned Hebrew, and I never learned Yiddish either because my parents only spoke it when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. I guess if you don’t speak a language you do lose at least some fluency. My mom could still understand it though, and when a rabbi visited her as part of a hospice service, she loved it when he sang songs she had known as a girl.

  10. How interesting to learn about the names of colors and priorities in different languages. That was a great introduction to your poem celebrating many delights. Wonderful and uplifting.

  11. Merril,
    I love this so much: the idea of the self emerging through language, through its color, light, and shadow, even as the color blue emerges in language (thank you for that informative preface). Forming the self, as a day emerges from night, all these metaphors for language and seeing and becoming just thrill me. Wonderful poem. And the photo journey was a great bonus too :>)
    pax,
    dora

  12. What a great meditation on color names. I had known this about blue (but not about the other colors) having read that it occurs less in nature — until I considered, well, the giant blue sky above our heads, which then caused me to wonder if perhaps skyblue is a color recent to our Earth’s evolutionary history?

  13. Merril your poem is a keeper. Put it in the special folder. You tapped into something with it. Loving the pictures and hearing about all of the lively events you (and hub and daughter) have been part of. Will look at the art project link in a few. Lastly, I bet you know this one by Garth (probably his most famous song.) It’s one I’ve sung en mass at a favorite watering hole a time or two. Great post that I very much enjoyed reading.

  14. Beautiful poem – love your celebration of colour, light and language. And fascinating piece on the development of colour in language. (Great photos too ).

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