Ask a Researcher: Why is the Grass Green? Or is It? (Mari Uusküla)


Why is the grass green? Or is it? We asked Mari Uusküla, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Translation Theroy at the School of Humanities.

The question is multi-faceted. On its own, no natural nor man-made object has a colour, we just perceive them as such. In physics, the colour green is defined as the spectrum of light that our eyes see at a wavelength of 520-570 nanometres. Our brain also plays a role in this, giving us the signal that this wavelength means ‘green’.

In Estonian, the grass is definitely green. From a linguistic viewpoint one could say we call things with the names we are used to. In Estonian, green and blue are different colours, even though the line between the two can be difficult to discern in reality. When does greenish blue become green, or bluish green become blue?

The colour of grass, in Estonian, is thus green. In fact, the word green (roheline) stems from the word grass (rohi), although this is not the case in many other Finno-Ugric languages. In Finnish, the word ‘vihreä’ (green) comes from the stem ‘wiša’, meaning bitter, poisonous or bilious.

In many languages, the words for green and blue do not exist, there is just one so-called grue (from the words green and blue), which can, depending on the language, be biased more toward green or blue. The question is not how these people see green or blue, but how they are used to assort and call colours. The most languages that use a term for grue lie near the equator.

There are other possibilities. The hanunoo language in the Philippines derives its colours from whether the dye looks “juicy” or “burnt”. Naturally, green falls into the “juicy” category.

The Cymraeg (Welsh) and Japanese languages have only recently started to separate green from blue. In Welsh, the word ‘glas’ stands for blue, green, as well as grey. Over time, the English language has had its effect on Welsh, thus during the past 50 years, the grass has become ‘gwyrdd’ in colour.

The phrase “the grass is green” is symbolic in a way. No natural object in the world has a certain singular colour. We know very well that during droughts, grass is brown and turns yellow at fall.

In Estonian and many other languages, the grass is green. Why? It is a tradition in these languages.

Until recently, the subjects for One Minute Lectures were conjured within the university, but now our viewers and readers can submit their own questions! If you have a question for us, send it to minut....at....tlu.ee.