In different languages around the world, speakers use the same word for blue as they do for green. You can see this in languages with few speakers, such as small groups of hunters, as well as in larger language areas. But there are similarities in the living environment of speakers of all those languages, a French, British and Dutch research team recently concluded in the scientific journal scientific reports.
The researchers tied 142 languages to a variety of data, such as climate, humidity, population size, and the amount of UV radiation. The amount of sunlight in particular has proven to be a clear indication of the absence of the word “blue” in the vocabulary. But the researchers also found links with other factors, such as population size: the more speakers of a language, the higher the chance of them being named blue separately.
Researchers offer a possible explanation for the relationship between sunlight and a lack of the word “blue”: damage to the retina. People who are exposed to excessive ultraviolet radiation during their lives have a greater chance of eye damage, which makes them less able to distinguish between blue and green. In the distant past, this could have affected the language, starting with the elderly. Because you don’t have to name something you don’t see.
“There are probably more possible explanations, but I think they are reasonable,” answers Steer Lufkins, a linguist at Utrecht University who was not involved in the research. Although language change often begins with young people inventing new words, it can also happen in reverse. If fewer and fewer people use a word, it eventually dies. “Although it is also possible that there is no word for blue at all, this is not known to many languages.”
Leufkens thinks it’s an interesting study, which aligns with the trend in linguistics to look at statistical connections. Whereas researchers used to collect data and run experiments in specific languages, now they are increasingly linking this data.
However, it often remains a guess as to why the links are found. Because why do languages with more speakers have the word “blue”? The researchers suggest, for example, that a larger population indicates a more culturally complex society, which would, for example, be more likely to develop paint-mixing techniques to make blue clothes. The more something there is in your environment, the more you need to name it. But the researchers themselves admit that population size is not really a good measure of “cultural complexity”. So there is still plenty of material for further discussion.
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