Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Another mystery (of the Orient) solved

Back in February, David Pilling, who works at the Financial Times in Tokyo doing god knows what, wrote a piece on how mysterious and inscrutable Japan is to him. This is from a man who has lived in Tokyo for 6 years. Perhaps he lives in a bubble for most folks who have lived here that length of time lose the Disneyland view of Japan.

One of the things which confused David to no end was the fact that the Japanese call "green" traffic lights "blue." He did not think it strange that native English speakers call "blue" traffic lights "green," but he is a journalist, a seeker of truth.

Well it turns out that few languages other than English make a clear distinction between green and blue:

The traditional subject of the tug of war over language and perception is color. Because languages divide the spectrum differently, researchers have asked whether language affected how people see color. English, for example, distinguishes blue from green. Most other languages do not make that distinction. (When Language Holds the Answer, by Christine Kenneally. New York Times. Here while it lasts.)

Oh darn. Them thar mysterious and uniquely unique Japanese folks seem a little less mysterious and unique. What does Mr. Pilling seem?

Oh, and have you noticed? Some traffic lights in Japan ARE blue, even by an English speaker's definition. Or perhaps I am turning Japanese.

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