There Is No Blue

 

“And jealous now of me, you gods, because I befriend a man, one I saved as he straddled the keel alone, when Zeus had blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.”

— Homer, The Odyssey, Book V

In 1858, then-future British Prime Minister William Gladstone noticed something odd about the Ancient Greek epic poet, Homer. The Iliad and The Odyssey are gorgeous and engrossing works that endure, but they include some weird color descriptions. Really weird.

To Homer, the ocean, as we discussed in Part I of our series, is not blue, but “wine-dark.” You might muse, “Homer was a poet, perhaps he’s simply using license to construct a vivid image.” If this “mischaracterization” of an object we universally acknowledge to be blue were a one-off, maybe you’d be right. But Gladstone was obsessed with Homer and he discovered a bizarre trend.

Roman bust of Homer from the second century AD - British Museum

Gladstone cited several other odd characterizations by Homer. Sheep aren’t white, they’re violet. Iron is also violet. Honey, not golden, amber, or yellow, is, instead, green! Gladstone decided to get scientific on The Odyssey. He cataloged every instance of a color descriptor and his conclusion was just as strange as the color of Homer’s sea.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, black and white are all over the place. Black appears almost 200 times, while white clocks in over a century of times. From there, though, the other hues drop off a cliff. Red is next on the list at just 15 mentions. Yellow and green find a home in under 10 instances apiece. How about our good buddy blue? Zero! The color blue is literally absent from Homer!

Gladstone was so gobsmacked by this revelation that he went to other ancient Greek works. To his astonishment, they all had weird color assignments and they all lacked the color blue! Gladstone theorized that the Greeks lived in a black-and-white world that was tinged by the color red and, barely, a few other shades. He concluded Homer and the Greeks were colorblind!

A black-and-white portrait of the guy who noticed there's no blue in Homer, William Gladstone

As peculiar as it would have been for all the ancient Greeks to be colorblind, this story actually gets a lot more ludicrous.

A decade after Gladstone’s analysis, a philologist named Lazarus Geiger (great moniker) was intrigued and wondered if perhaps the oddity was not contained to one region of the world. Geiger took ancient texts from all over the world – Icelandic sagas, the Koran, old Chinese works, the ancient Hebrew version of the Bible, Hindu Vedic hymns – and gave them the Gladstone treatment. And he discovered the Greeks were not alone.

Of the Hindu Vedic hymns, he penned this eloquence:

“These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of colour, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again…but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs…and that is that the sky is blue.”

All over the world, the color blue was missing in action! It was as if the people of the ancient world simply could not see blue.

What color is the sea beneath the boat of Odysseus?

So if there’s no blue in these ancient texts, what’s going on? When did these societies start to use the word? Geiger pressed on with his research.

He discovered that not only did blue show up later than all other colors in language, but the order in which colors appeared was not random. Every language started with words for black and white. Makes sense, day and night. The next word in every single language was red. Again, this makes decent sense. Blood is red, clay is red, things would have appeared abundantly in the ancient world as red. Then, in nearly every language, yellow followed and then green. In a few places, yellow and green swapped spots. But blue was always last!

Again, the question that springs to mind is “what the heck is going on here?” Could humans not see the color blue in the ancient world?

The Sclater's lemur's blue eyes are very uncommon in the wild

Blue things are actually extraordinarily rare in nature. Name as many naturally blue items as you can. How many blue animals can you conjure? How about blue food? As we discovered in Part II of the series, blue eyes are new to the world on a relative scale and, to this day, a rarity. Some blue flowers exist, but almost all of them were actually genetically engineered by humans. Blueberries are actually a deep hue of purple. Blue jays, like eyeballs, have no blue pigment in them but appear blue due to the scattering of light.

As it turns out, blue is simply scarce in our world.

But, you might ask, what about that ever-present question we posed in Part I of the series on blue? Perhaps the Ancient Greeks didn’t see much blue terrestrially, but what about that giant slab of blue above them? Why would you have no word for blue if you stared at the blue sky every day?

You have no word for blue when you look at this every day?

Linguist Guy Deutscher studied this phenomenon from Homer to Gladstone to Geiger to the modern day. He theorized a civilization doesn’t need a word for a color with which it does not interact and cannot replicate. Yet the sky is a puzzler. He decided to try a low-tech experiment on his young daughter.

He and his wife taught their daughter about colors as most parents do, except they decided never to tell her the sky is blue. When she could talk and was able to respond to her parents when they asked what color things are, they decided to test her on the firmaments. They queried their daughter, “what color is the sky?” The girl was perplexed at the question. The first few times they asked her, she gave no response, as if befuddled by the question entirely. After a number of subsequent sessions, the daughter finally gave a color for the sky: white! Deutscher noted, “for a few times, she said white. And then, finally, after a month and a half or two more months, she said blue for the first time. But, even then it wasn’t consistently blue…then she said once, ‘blue, mm, no white, mm, no blue.’ Over time, she slowly started to give the consistent answer of blue.”

Another round of the “what’s going on?” line of questioning pops up. Though the evidence here is anecdotal, perhaps Homer did not look up at the sky and see blue.

I needed another photo of something blue, so here's Cookie Monster inside a rock

Did these authors of pre-blue texts not see the color or did they just lack a word for it? Can one really see a color if one does not have a word for it? Does the word itself define a hue? Are these differences simple semantics?

Because we cannot know for sure the specifics on ancient vision or time travel to ask Homer, the definitive answer is a mystery. However, a few modern researchers have some insight.

As we noted, civilizations encounter a word for blue last. There still exist in the world certain languages that do not have a word for blue. One such group are the Himba in Namibia. A scientist named Jules Davidoff devised a brilliant experiment to shed some blue light on the subject. 

A member of the Himba takes part in the experiment

Look at the image above. Most likely you can spot the blue square amongst the green. The woman in the image above could not see a difference! The Himba could either not distinguish blue from green or, if they could, it took them much longer to single out the blue square. To the Himba, blue is merely a shade of green.

The Himba’s language is different from most others in another way: they have a lot more words for shades of green than we do. When shown the following image, they had no problem discovering the green square that is slightly different than the others.

Could you find it? I found it arduous to see much difference.

Here’s the one that was off:

Did you get it right?

Obviously, something very odd is going on in our brains when it comes to color.

Davidoff believes language plays an integral part in the oddity of the color blue. To the Himba, they have no nomenclature for blue, so their eyes and minds can gloss over the blue and perceive it as a shade of another color for which they do have a word, green. However, he says once there is a category for something the thing starts to stand out to our brains. From there, it’s a feedback loop. Your mind notices something different, which reinforces the word.

Essentially, without a word for blue, your eyes still see the color blue but your mind does not notice the color blue. So perhaps Homer and the ancients experienced the color blue, but they never knew they experienced the color blue. Without knowing you are experiencing a color, you wouldn’t even notice the lack of a word for it. It all adds up to the word blue being completely absent in The Odyssey.

Earlier we noted blue was the last color to enter languages and that ancient cultures did not have a word for blue. Well, there’s one major exception to this reality that proves some of the thinking about why ancient cultures lacked blue.

The only peoples to have an ancient word for blue were the Egyptians. Why were they the aberration? Because, though they also experienced a dearth of blue in nature, their culture possessed a blue dye! They created calcium copper silicate, the world’s first synthetic dye. We now know this color as “Egyptian blue.”

A detail from the throne of Tutankhamun circa 1327 BCE - National Museum in Cairo

It seems counterintuitive that humans might not have experienced something so universal as a color, yet all the signs point that way!

Homer didn’t know he was seeing blue; the Egyptians did, thanks to the colors around them.

Are there other colors out there that we don’t know we’re missing, for which we have no dedicated word? Will a few millennia add another colorful word to our vocabularies?

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