Here is a song for you

Everyone's favorite not-quite-making-it-big-in-the-U.S. idol UTADA Hikaru is about to release her fourth solo Japanese-language solo album (but sixth album overall), ULTRA BLUE. In the June 5th edition of the free Tower Records sales-chasing mini-magazine, she discusses the title:


It's like, I just thought that "ao" was totally a keyword. It's the sei in seishun, when you're young and full of dreams... but "blue" has this enigmatic side to it, too. Like, the color of just accepting things. And I thought, that's totally me right now.

Ao is a native Japanese word for "blue/green" (think: the color of the sea, the sky, young leaves), written with the Chinese character 青, which is also sometimes used to write the Chinese-derived morpheme of roughly the same meaning, sei, instead. Seishun literally means "blue/green spring" and figuratively refers to the time when you are, well, young and full of hopes and dreams. (It starts sometime after you enter junior high or high school and ends either during or when you graduate from university, I believe.) Your salad days, when you are still... green.

See, the problem is that ao is an example of the very common phenomenon whereby color words don't quite map perfectly from one language to the other. If you say that ao is blue, you're saying that in Japan, you step on the gas when the light turns blue. If you say, okay, I guess ao is green, you're arguing for a green sky over East Asia.

(An interesting Wenbudao post a while ago suggested that the reason it pulls this double duty in Japanese but not in English, etc., is because Japanese only has four native color adjectives, and the first three are reserved for white, black and red. ["But what about midori?" (the other word for green), I hear you cry. That was originally a noun referring to new plant growth, and only became used as a color word later on.])

In summary, ao or 青 might be useful for implying youthfulness, but as a native English speaker I don't think that "BLUE" is.

However, having said all that, Utada has lived much of her life in New York and her English is reportedly very good -- some dare call her a native speaker. I don't think she is unaware of this issue. She's just playing to her audience: Japanese speakers. When they first learn colors, ao generally gets assigned to "blue", and not many of them care enough to get to the point where they learn that sometimes it's "green" instead. She is using the English of Japan rather than of New York to make her point.

That, or I'm reading way too much into some line she spun out desperately while trying to think of an interesting soundbite about the album.

Popularity factor: 5


To continue the colour-slots idea, you'll notice that Pinker goes on with:
"Five adds in both yellow and green; six, blue; seven, brown"

and you'll notice that yellow and brown are both, if not first class citizens like red/black/white/blue, still a cut above the rest in that you can say 黄色いNOUN and 茶色いNOUN rather than having to use の. This sort of suggests that 青 is spilling over and blocking the existence of a colour that would otherwise sit in that 'six: blue' slot.

I hope I'm right in remembering that 黄 and 茶 are the only colours in class two, otherwise it blows the theory out of the water rather...

On the gripping hand, google suggests that
黄色い and 茶色い are Edo-period latecomers [in the 'no, you're wrong' postscript to the first question in http://www5b.biglobe.ne.jp/~aiida/gimon9.html], which seems a bit late to be dealing in basic colour categories.


(Oh, crap, somebody brought up ki!)

Yeah, chairoi is obviously originally a loanword, and my thinking (possibly mistaken) has always been that since "ki" needs an "iro", it wasn't originally a color. I think in the MYS it only appears (with the value "k_") as part of "kugane"... although this IS contrasted with "shirogane", which makes things awkward. (銀も金(kugane)も玉も何せむにまされる宝子にしかめやも)

It would be interesting if, like you say, both, not being as old as the Big Four in terms of adjectival usage, got promoted to the -i category just because they were part of the Big Six. Especially since there are entirely native compound color words like "momoiro" and "uguisuiro" that didn't get promoted. That would make Pinker's proposed universal color hierarchy a fairly powerful force.


I have nothing really new to add, other than to point people to Paul Kay's website. He's done, as far as I can tell, most of the (best of the) research on patterns in color naming across world languages. Can't recommend any single paper, except maybe one of the recent encyclopedia articles. (anyway, this brought on by the citing of Stephen Pinker in the linked article, when I'm willing to bet that he hasn't done much/any research on the topic himself)


I think the color hierarchy idea comes from Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution by Berlin and Kay--I dragged Pinker into the mix on Wenbudao because he's a good writer and I liked his Crayon box metaphor. (That, and that's where I first heard of the idea.)

Music tie-in: Have you seen Pornografitti's "Red" and "Blue" albums with red and, um, "blue" apples on them?


How could I have missed those scary, abused-looking painted faces on all those billboards? Man, a dark period in my life.

Thanks for the link, Russell (and clarification, Amida)

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