If you visit Japan, you may be surprised that Japanese traffic lights have blue on go rather than the green in the U.S. Actually, green is the standard there, just as red is, they just have a different definition of green.

It is rather common that things which should be basically the same for everyone, like a color, have not only different words but different meanings. A new study of basic color terms found that in cultures that have remained isolated, there are a lot fewer words for the tens of millions of colors we see.

The authors found that members of the Tsimane’ society, who live in a remote part of the Bolivian Amazon rainforest, and learned Spanish as a second language began to classify colors into more words, making color distinctions that are not commonly used by the Tsimane’ who are monolingual.

Language is never black and white.

Interesting was that, instead of borrowing Spanish words for blue and green, bilingual speakers repurposed words from their own language to describe those colors, using two different words to describe blue and green, which monolingual Tsimane’ speakers do not typically do.

In English and many other languages of industrialized nations, there are basic color words corresponding to black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, pink, and gray. South American Spanish additionally divides the blue space into light blue (“celeste”) and dark blue (“azul”).

Members of Tsimane’ society consistently use only three color words, which correspond to black, white, and red. There are also a handful of words that encompass many shades of yellow or brown, as well as two words that are used interchangeably to mean either green or blue. However, these words are not used by everyone in the population. In some languages, speakers divide the “warm” part of the color spectrum into more color words than the “cooler” regions, which include blue and green. In the Tsimane’ language, two words, “shandyes” and “yushñus,” are used interchangeably for any hue that falls within blue or green.

The findings suggest that contact between languages can influence how people think about concepts such as color, the researchers say.