Holy Goluboy! The Blue Color, Techeilet and Cultural References

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Techeilet traditionally has been associated with the color “blue” yet there are references to it being shades of green or purple. Rambam (Maimonides) calls it Shachor, which is debated to be either black or simply any dark color (Kesef Mishna). Aside from the dye from the murex/hexaplex trunculus snail producing an unstable range of colors from aquamarine blue to blue-violet, in reduced, heated states, an accepted theory is that different cultures have different color references. Let’s cover some of them.

Russian for Blue

Russian has probably one of the richest distinctions between colors. In English for example we have sky blue and dark blue. Russian has completely different blues:

“Синий” (Synyiy) is blue.

“Голубой” (Goluboy) is light blue/sky blue.

“Лазурный” (Lazurniye) is sky blue, it is not an originally Russian word though. (Compare “azure”)

Greenish-blue (cyan) is usually called “цвет морской волны” (“chvyet morckoy volni”) (literally “the colour of the sea waves”).

Other special shades of blue are usually named after a pigment (mineral or a plant) just like in English.

“Бирюзовый” (“Byryiozoviy”) – turquoise (from “Бирюза” [“Byrioza”])

“Кобальтовый” (Kobaltoviy) – cobalt blue

“Васильковый” (Vacyzkoviy) – named after a flower “василёк” (“Vacylek”) – cornflower


Cornflower blue

Turquoise stone

Chinese for Blue

Chinese is interesting in that the supercolor Qing which refers to blue, green and black. From https://www.lomography.com/magazine/337259-color-chronicles-deconstructing-qing:

Qing is a special color found in Chinese color history, it’s a dualistic color that refers to the mix of green and blue, sometimes with tones of black in it. The World of Chinese defines the color qing in a very specific description:

“The character 青 (qīng) describes color: 青天 (qīngtiān) for the sky, 青山 (qīngshān) for the mountains, 青丝(qīngsī) for hair, 青眼 (qīngyǎn) for eyes… One color can be used to describe all of these different entities. What color is 青 anyway? When used with different nouns to form fixed words and phrases, qing could be green, blue, or close to black.”
The interesting aspect of this color is how there’s no exact hue for it. Sure, in most cases it refers to green, as is with the Chinese language when they refer to grass, mountains, vegetables. It’s the color of spring, surely, as the ancient dictionary The Shiming defines qing as ‘birth’. The word 青春 (qīngchūn), literally translated to “green spring”, means youth.

Sometimes qing is blue, and it comes from the words of a Confucian philosopher named Xunzi, who says, “Qing comes from blue, yet excels blue”. The World of Chinese also writes, “Blue, in this context, refers to bluegrass, which was used to dye items the color of qing. The sentence “青出于蓝而胜于蓝” (qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán) has become a fixed expression, used to describe how the student could excel the teacher.” Lastly, the color qing will not be qing without the presence of black tones in it.

Ancient Greek for Blue

The following was from a comment in Quora

Ancient Greeks used 2 terms : kalais (καλαίς) which referred to copper sulphate and “cyan” (kyanous-κυανούς) which can be traced back to the cornflower dye (Centaurus Cyanus). So how blue is Kalais (Copper sulphate) Ancient Egyptians already used it as a dye since 2600 BC. In the Hippocratic Collection (named for, although not entirely written by, the Greek physician Hippocrates, 460 to 380 B.C.), copper is recommended for the treatment of leg ulcers associated with varicose veins. To prevent infection of fresh wounds, the Greeks sprinkled a dry powder composed of copper oxide and copper sulphate on the wound, due to their fungicidal properties.

Blue-green copper stones

-The first evolved into galazio in early Medieval Greek and is typically used to describe the colour of the sky.

-The second term “kyano” is still in use in Modern Greek and describes the colour of the sea. It was formerly known as “cyan blue” or cyan-blue, and its first recorded use as a colour name in English was in 1879.

Except in Greek, in most languages, ‘cyan’ is not a basic colour term and it phenomenogically appears as a greenish vibrant hue of blue to most English speakers. Other English terms for this “borderline” hue region include blue green, aqua, and turquoise.

Interestingly, Iakinthos, which is used in the modern Septuagint translation, isn’t mentioned. This term also was used for many early English Bible translations before “blue” was specified. It’s possible that terms like Purpura (purple as well as the “purple murex snail” which produces a range of purple dyes, including blue) and Iakinthos which refers to the hyacinth flower, are superterms as they’re not limited to one color. But I digress.


Celtic for Blue

From Wikipedia:

The Welsh and Cornish word glas is usually translated as “blue”; however, it can also refer, variously, to the color of the sea, of grass, or of silver (cf. Greek γλαυκός). The word gwyrdd (a borrowing from Latin viridis) is the standard translation for “green”. In traditional Welsh (and related languages), glas could refer to certain shades of green and gray as well as blue, and llwyd could refer to various shades of gray and brown. Perhaps under the influence of English, modern Welsh is trending toward the 11-color Western scheme, restricting glas to blue and using gwyrdd for green, llwyd for gray and brown for brown, respectively. However, the more traditional usage is still heard today in the Welsh for grass (glaswellt or gwelltglas), and in fossilized expressions such as caseg las (gray mare), tir glas (green land), papur llwyd (brown paper) and even red for brown in siwgwr coch (brown sugar).

In Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic the word for “blue” is gorm (whence the name Cairngorm mountains derives) – a borrowing of the now obsolete Early Welsh word gwrm, meaning “dark blue” or “dusky”. A relic of the original meaning (“dusky”, “dark brown”) survives in the Irish term daoine gorma, meaning “Black people“.

Irish language color wheel, with notes on their usage

In Old and Middle Irish, like in Welsh, glas was a blanket term for colors ranging from green to blue to various shades of gray (e.g. the glas of a sword, the glas of stone, etc.). In Modern Irish, it has come to mean both various shades of green, with specific reference to plant hues, and gray (like the sea), respectively; other shades of green[vague] would be referred to in Modern Irish as uaine or uaithne, while liath is gray proper (like a stone).

Scottish Gaelic uses the term uaine for “green”. However, the dividing line between it and gorm is somewhat different than between the English “green” and “blue”, with uaine signifying a light green or yellow-green, and gorm extending from dark blue (what in English might be navy blue) to include the dark green or blue-green of vegetation. Grass, for instance, is gorm, rather than uaine. In addition, liath covers a range from light blue to light gray. However, the term for a green apple, such as a Granny Smith, would be ubhal glas.

The boundary between colors varies much more than the “focal point”: e.g. an island known in Breton as Enez c’hlas (“the blue island”) is l’Île Verte (“the green island”) in French, in both cases referring to the grayish-green color of its bushes, even though both languages distinguish green from blue.


French and all Romance Languages

From Wikipedia:

The Romance terms for “green” (Catalan verd, French vert, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish verde) are all from Latin viridis. The terms for “blue”, on the other hand, vary: Catalan blau, Occitan blau, French bleu and Italian blu come from a Germanic root, whereas the Spanish and Portuguese azul is likely to come from Arabic. French bleu was in turn loaned into many other languages, including English. Latin itself did not have a word covering all shades of blue, which may help explain these borrowings. It did, however, recognise caeruleus (dark blue, sometimes greenish), and lividus (grayish blue, like lead).

French, as most Romance languages, makes roughly the same distinctions as English and has a specific term for each of blue (“bleu”), green (“vert”) and gray (“gris”). For all three, different shades can be indicated with different (compound) terms, none of them being considered as basic color terms: “bleu clair” (light blue), “bleu ciel” (sky blue), “bleu marine” (Navy blue), “bleu roi” (royal blue); “vert clair” (light green), “vert pomme” (literally: apple green); “gris anthracite” (deep gray), “gris souris” (literally: “mouse gray”). French also uses “azur” for the lighter shade of blue of the sunny sky, that was in turn loaned to English as “azure”.

Catalan distinguishes blue (blau) from green (verd) and gray (gris). Other basic or common colors by its own right are porpra “purple”, groc “yellow”, carbassa or taronja “orange”, vermell “red”, rosa “pink”, marró “brown”, gris “gray”, negre “black” and blanc “white”. For all these colors except black and white it is possible to indicate different shades using clar “light” and fosc “dark”; for blue, though, it generally is blau cel “sky blue” and blau marí “sea blue”. Other words and compounds are common to indicate more elaborated shades (verd llimona “lemon green”, rosa pàlid “pale pink”, lila “lilac”, granat “carmine”, ocre “ocher”, verd oliva “olive green”, etc.). Catalan actually distinguishes two reds with different and common words: while vermell refers to the color of arterial blood, roig is a red tending towards yellow or the color of clay.[26]

Italian distinguishes blue (blu), green (verde) and gray (grigio). There are also common words for light blue (e.g. the color of the cloudless sky): azzurro and celeste, and other for darker shades, e.g. indaco, indigo. Azzurro, the equivalent of the English azure, is usually considered a separate basic color rather than a shade of blu (similar to the distinction in English between red and pink). Some sources even go to the point of defining blu as a darker shade of azzurro.[27] Celeste literally means ‘(the color) of the sky’ and can be used as synonym of azzurro, although it will more often be considered a less saturated hue.[28][29] acquamarina (aquamarine) literally “sea water”, indicates an even lighter, almost transparent, shade of blue. To indicate a mix of green and blue, Italians might say verde acqua, literally water green. The term glauco, not common in standard Italian and perceived as a literary term, is used in scientific contexts (esp. botany) to indicate a mix of blue, green and gray.[30] Other similar terms are ceruleo and turchese (turquoise/teal); they are more saturated hues (especially turchese) and differ in context of use: the first is a literary or bureaucratic term (used for example to indicate light green eyes in identity cards); the second is more common in any informal speech, along with the variant turchino (for instance, the fairy of The Adventures of Pinocchio is called fata turchina).

In Portuguese, the word “azul” means blue and the word “verde” means green. Furthermore, “azul-claro” means light-blue, and “azul-escuro” means dark-blue. More distinctions can be made between several hues of blue. For instance, “azul-celeste” means sky blue, “azul-marinho” means navy-blue and “azul-turquesa” means turquoise-blue. One can also make the distinction between “verde-claro” and “verde-escuro”, meaning light and dark-green respectively, and more distinctions between several qualities of green: for instance, “verde-oliva” means olive-green and “verde-esmeralda” means emerald-green. Cyan is usually called “azul-celeste” (sky blue) or “azul-piscina”, meaning pool blue, but also less commonly “ciano”, and “verde-água”, meaning water green.

Romanian clearly distinguishes between the colors green (verde) and blue (albastru). It also uses separate words for different hues of the same color, e.g. light blue (bleu), blue (albastru), dark-blue (bleu-marin or bleomarin), along with a word for turquoise (turcoaz) and azure (azur or azuriu).

Similarly to French, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese, Spanish distinguishes blue (azul) and green (verde) and has an additional term for the tone of blue visible in the sky, namely “celeste”, which is nonetheless considered a shade of blue.

Rashi’s Blue Meaning All Light Colors

French is interesting since Rashi writes Techeiles’ color is Yarok, which normally translates as green or yellow-green. The Pri Megadim though writes it as “bla” (blue). And if there was any doubt whether he really meant “blue” like we understand it today, Rashi tips his hand and writes in Brachos 57b Talmud Bavli that “all ‘tzivonim’ (commonly translated as colors) are good in a dream except for Techeiles,” that it’s because when one gets sick, one’s facial complexion turns Yarok which is the color of Techeiles. And sickly green skin looks yellowish.

Source: https://fedisbest.org/newborn-jaundice-lethargy/

David Sedley in a Tazria piece in Times of Israel elaborates further: 

To make things even more confusing, Tosafos in Nida 19b says that the word yarok usually means yellow like an Esrog, and not green like a leek. Actually, Rashi implies the same thing in Berakhot 25a where he describes an illness named yerakon as “an illness known as jaundice.”

To add to the confusion further, Rashi on Chulin 47b says that yarok can mean a range of yellow colors:

Yaroka: Not like grass, rather like the color of cuscuta (a yellowish plant), or the color of saffron or crocus, or the color of an egg. And all these are types of yarok although each one is different from the other. And any color of crog (crocus) is also called yarok.

But if we go back to the source of Rashi’s comment on our Torah portion it makes sense that yarok actually includes a range of colors. Two Rabbis disagree as to the meaning of yarok she-be-yarokim in the Tosefta (Negaim 1:3).

Rabbi Eliezer says it is the color of wax or the [yellowish or greenish] karmulin plant. Sumchus says it is like the wing of a peacock.

So it seems that for Rashi and Tosafos, like for the rabbis of the mishnaic era, the word yarok does not actually mean green, but rather describes a light shade of color, which can be anything from saffron yellow to sky blue.

German for Blue

From Wikipedia:

In Old Norse, the word blár “blue” (from proto-Germanic blēwaz) was also used to describe black (and the common word for people of African descent was thus blámenn ‘blue/black men’). In Swedishblå, the modern word for blue, was used this way until the early 20th century, and it still is to a limited extent in modern Faroese.

German and Dutch distinguish blue (respectively blau and blauw) and green (grün and groen) very similarly to English. There are (compound) terms for light blue (hellblau and lichtblauw) and darker shades of blue (dunkelblau and donkerblauw). In addition, adjective forms of most traditional color names are inflected to match the corresponding noun’s case and gender.

Vietnamese for Blue-Green

The same word “xanh” can mean leaf green (“xanh lá cây”) or sea blue (“xanh dương”).


Blue-Green in Namibia according to the Himba People

The Himba people of Namibia have three different words for different shades of green — zuzu, dambu and buru, but they have no distinct words for blue (blue is also buru). As a consequence, they can distinguish between shades of green that seem identical to most Westerners, but struggle to see the difference between blue and green. Watch this incredible video to see the impact of language on how we see color compared to the Himba people.


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