September 14, 2013
Who Knew About Blue?
There is no blue in ancient history! I learned this recently listening to NPR in the car, on a show called Radio Lab. It seems that 19th Century British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was a fanatical fan of Homer. He combed through the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey over and over again and was bemused by Homer’s descriptions of color. The ancient writer described the sea and oxen as blood-colored. Sheep and iron were violet, and honey was green. Gladstone must have had time on his hands between gigs as prime minister, because he decided to count how many times Homer used each color word. What he found was quite surprising. Black was mentioned 170 times and white 100 times. He only found red 13 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10 times each. Nowhere in Homer’s writings does he mention the color blue. Gladstone concluded, erroneously, that Homer was colorblind.
If he was, he was in good company. Linguists have discovered that the only ancient language, that we know of, that had a word for ‘blue’ was Egyptian. It is not mentioned in the Eddas, the Vedas, the Koran or the Hebrew Scriptures. What gives?
Lazarus Geiger, a German philologist, was intrigued by Gladstone’s work. Looking back at the origins of words for colors, he discovered that in nearly all languages the color words came into existence in about the same order. Black and white were first; then red, then yellow, then green. Even when the order varied somewhat, red was always first, and blue always came later. Describing the Hindu Vedas, he noted, “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 color, 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. He posited that our ability to see colors evolved over time, and that our growing color perception followed the order of the visual spectrum.
Even today, blue does not describe the same thing in all languages. In Russian, there are different words for dark blue and light blue. In the languages of the Lakota Sioux and several Eastern Asian nations, the same word us used to describe both blue and green.
No one is sure why blue is missing from ancient literature, but there are some educated guesses. One thought is that, except for the sky, there were very few things blue things in the ancient world. No blue food, no blue animals. As ubiquitous as blue is now, this seems hard to imagine. Another idea is that you really don’t need a word for a color until you can create a pigment that color. Blue is a hard pigment to create. Dr. Heinz Berke, a chemist at the University of Zurich, explained, “Early mankind had no access to blue, because blue is not what you call an earth color. You don’t find it in the soil.” He went on to say that it wasn’t until the advent of mining that it became possible to extract a blue pigment.
I would love to have a truly satisfactory answer to this conundrum. We may never know for sure why the ancients didn’t use a word for blue. But, isn’t it an interesting question?
Image Credit: Vladimir Sazonov / Shutterstock