Molnar: Fifty Shades of Green

May 13, 2015

We’ve all heard that the Inuit have more than fifty words for snow. The Sami in northern Scandinavia are said to have a thousand words for reindeer. In Greek and Russian there are two or three words for blue corresponding to different shades, which are perceived as separate.

But in English we have a woefully inadequate vocabulary for green.

This I find hard to understand. All it takes is a glance at a Vermont hillside as the trees unfurl their leaves in this season to see that green simply doesn’t begin to describe the multitude of shades that color our woods. They range from light to dark with endless gradations; from the electric green of birches to the muted green of spruces; from the newborn green of willows to the seasoned green of apple trees.

In autumn, when the same hillsides sport our famous foliage, the language is rich with words to describe the kaleidoscope of colors. For yellow alone we have gold, ocher, mustard, saffron, canary yellow, straw colored, flaxen.

We do have synonyms for green too, but most have nothing to do with spring’s colors. Olive green, lime or chartreuse don’t show up on our trees in springtime. Neither do jade or aquamarine.

A quick look at the Internet yields pages and pages of information on fall colors, but spring colors are relegated to flowers and flowering trees. The myriad greens we see are hardly mentioned.

There seems to be no reason for this uneven state of affairs. It’s possible that the green variations we enjoy did not exist in Old England, where most of the language evolved. But neither do our fall colors, which are fully replicated only in an area of China, where leaf-peeping tours are also popular. This makes sense, since they have many of the same trees that give us our fall colors: maple, hawthorn, birch, aspen, hickories, linden, chestnut and oak. Presumably, these same trees also provide the unique green tapestry of spring. And Mandarin does have specific words for yellow green, dark green, tender or soft green and moss green - many more options in fact, than we do, to describe so many greens.

Perhaps we could borrow a few Chinese words for green. We’d likely distort the pronunciation into some unrecognizable form, but we’d enrich our language. And since language shapes the way we perceive the world, we’d also enrich ourselves with a new awareness of the ethereal and breathtaking colors of spring.