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Traffic lights – green or blue?

Traffic lights – green or blue?

I believe the following English sentence is universally correct: “When the traffic light turns green, you can go.”

However, if I say this in Japanese, I’d say: 信号(しんごう)が青(あお)になったら、進(すす)んでいいです。

Have you noticed something strange?

I didn’t say and most Japanese native speakers won’t say: 信号(しんごう)が緑(みどり)になったら、進(すす)んでいいです。

It is not that traffic lights in Japan have a different colour from the rest of the world. The “green lights” are still “green” (although apparently the Japanese “green” light has the closest hue to “blue”) but we call it 青(あお /ao)!

Why? Apparently the Japanese language did not have a word for “green colour” for a long time and people were calling both blue and green “青(あお /ao)” until around the 11th century and even now, we often use “青(あお /ao)” for “green” as well as for “blue.”

The English word “green” has the meaning of “young” or “immature” and we the Japanese often use あお(い) for that. For that reason, “lush green” is often translated as 青々あおあおとしたみどり.

Today’s point

If you hear the word あおい, that could be “blue,” “green” or “immature.” Rest assured, みどり is always for “green” (could be “greenery”).

Hope you found this interesting!

For Advanced Learners

I said: 信号(しんごう)が青(あお)なったら、進(すす)んでいいです。

I didn’t and won’t say: 信号(しんごう)が青(あお)なったら、進(すす)んでいいです。

Traffic lights are man-made, and they change from “red” to “blue” instantaneously, so you need to use the noun あお here.

On the other hand, if somebody has gone pale due to a shock or illness, we say: xxxさんはあおなりました。This あお is the stem of the いadjective あおい. (yes, あおい also means “pale” in Japanese.)

As a rule of thumb, when we talk about a change of colour, we use:

  • [いadjective stem] +  なります for a natural, gradual change; and
  • [noun]  なります for a mechanical, quick change.

Remember, there are only 6 colour related adjectives: あかい (red)、あおい (blue/green)、黄色きいろい (yellow)、しろい (white)、くろい (black)、茶色ちゃいろい (brown) and they all can be used as a noun if you take the ending い off. Other colour words are all nouns, not なadjectives.

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One thought on “Traffic lights – green or blue?

  1. Reply
    ずつ | EasyJapaneseE
    7 April 2021 at 8:00 am

    […] *I bet many of you are wondering why I said あおいりんご instead of みどりのりんご in the question sentence. If you call green ones みどりのりんご, people will understand you but a majority of native speakers will call them あおいりんご or あおりんご (strictly speaking, they are not the same. If you want to know the difference, see below, but that bit is not important for now). We use the word あお for “green” quite often. I have written a bit about this in a previous post: Traffic lights – green or blue? […]

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