The Glas Glas Grass of Home

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It seems apt to begin the quibble blog with the very first that we recieved.  It is a question that comes up again and again. 

Did Stephen really say that there was no word in Welsh for "Blue"?

Well, yes.  He did.  And we have to hold our hands up.

Stephen gets his QI information from a number of sources; from his own knowledge, from the elf-prepared cards, from a screen in his desk, and, occasionally, from his earpiece.  On this particular occasion, as the conversation drifted from Ancient Greek to Welsh, Stephen was told by the producer that there is no word in Welsh for "Blue" - a fact that the producer had been told at a dinner party - however, as any Welshman or woman will happily tell you, there is, and it's "Glas".

In fact, the information would have been correct, had the episode been recorded around 1000 years ago.  

Different languages divide the visible spectrum up in different ways: all languages have words for white and black, if a language contains a third term it is always red, a fourth will either be green or yellow, a fifth will be yellow or green, while only a language with six distinct colours will have a term for blue.  Languages without a word for blue will not distinguish it from green; such languages are known to anthopologists as "Grue Languages."

Unlike Modern Welsh, Ancient Welsh was a "Grue Language;" the word "glas" was used to mean any greeny-blue colour, a fact that can still be seen in the word glaswellt ("blue straw") which means "grass."  Other Celtic languages such as Manx have kept Glas to mean green, the name "Glasgow" comes from the celtic for "Green Hollow".

To sum-up.  There is a word in Welsh for blue.  It's glas.
Quibble Qualified

Sources:
Welsh Correspondence
Color Naming: "Grue" in the Celtic Languages of the British Isles - Lazar-Meyn H.A
Brewers Britain & Ireland
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/449/could-early-man-only-see-three-colors
http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8548630


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14 Comments

how very interesting, well quite interesting anyway, the Irish word glás means green, whereas gorm means blue. i wonder if gorm means anything in welsh? perhaps it might unravel like the cookie-biscuit tangent...

It's not unreasonable. Some languages lack separate words for green and blue, instead using one word for both. Welsh could be one of those languages.

Japanese too has trouble distinguishing blue and green. A green traffic light for example is called an "ao shingo" which means "blue traffic light". In modern Japanese they have a word for green ("midori"), but still some green things are traditionally referred to as being "ao" (blue).

Eggshaped! Shame on you!
"the very first that we recieved"

My French husband insists that our car is blue, whereas for me it's definitely green.

From my, albeit hazy, memory of psycholinguistics, the fourth colour word is either BROWN or green, not yellow or green. This follows on from the importance/relevance of the colours: light & dark, blood, grass and earth. It also goes some way to explaining why we have a concept of brown which cannot exactly be described as a spectral colour.

Welsh does indeed have words for green and blue (gwyrdd and glas, respectively) but the dividing line between them is not always the same as in English (indeed this is a classic example in linguistics textbooks). This mismatch between the lexicons of different languages is certainly not unique to English/Welsh and I wonder if this might also explain doctorsyntax's French husband's perception of their car colour. (Or it could just be mild colour blindess, of course: this explains why there are certain colours I call brown which other native speakers of English call green).

There's no fada in glas...

Theres no á in glas, its just a (in the irish word for green i mean.)

Welsh does have separate words for Blue and Green. Glas ac Gwyrdd.

Gorm doesn't appear to mean anything in Welsh. At least according to google translator.

By the way, the fada mentioned above is the Irish word for the acute accent - Síneadh fada to give it its full name. It changes the pronunciation and meaning of Irish words. 'Glas', the Irish word for green is pronounced more or less like the English word 'gloss'. 'Glás' isn't a word, but if it was it would be pronounced something like 'glawss'.

but there is a fada in glaschu, and a muda, maybe even a brudda or a little sista.

I'm surprised blue is a later development in language - with English speaking children at least it's one of the first colours they learn to recognise (as a developmental thing).

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This page contains a single entry by eggshaped published on January 10, 2009 10:39 AM.

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