Ohio State University researchers studying the Japanese color lexicon and its relation to the U.S. vocabulary found evidence of language’s evolution.
The study, published in the Journal of Vision, found that modern Japanese have designated a precise color with a uniform name — mizu.
According to a university press release, mizu translates to water and has emerged in recent decades as a unique shade in the Japanese lexicon.
It’s what English speakers would call light blue, researchers said.
“Like animal species, language is constantly evolving,” said Delwin Lindsey, an Ohio State psychology professor and coauthor of the study.
The researchers asked 57 native Japanese speakers to name the colors on cards placed before them, the press release detailed. The study participants used 93 unique color terms without modifiers such as light or dark.
Identification of basic long-standing color terms came as no surprise, but the use of mizu by almost everyone in the group was new and strong evidence that it should be included among 12 generally accepted basic Japanese color terms, the researchers concluded.
Additionally, the study found that there is no English equivalent to mizu or kon (dark blue) for that matter.
Humans mostly see color in exactly the same way, researchers said, but how different cultures describe it varies widely.
“In America, we don’t have a single unique word for light blue,” said Angela Brown, an Ohio State optometry professor and Lindsey’s coauthor. “The closest thing we have is sky, but when we ask (study participants), we don’t elicit that response very often.
“In Japan, mizu is as different from blue as green is from blue.”
Researchers selected the color lexicon as the subject of the study because they are easily described, reproduced and displayed.
“We’re interested in how colors are represented through language and how that gets distributed through society,” Lindsey said. “How is it that we all decide that blue is blue?
“We do so through interaction.”
Brown concluded that color naming represents how words become associated with things.
“All things that exist, from teacups to love,” she said.
The study was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Research Institute of Electrical Communication at Japan’s Tohoku University.
In addition to the assistance provided by Japanese colleagues, alumnus Ryan Lange worked on the study as a graduate student in Ohio State’s College of Optometry.