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There are some universal truths in life: water is wet, puppies are adorable, the sky is blue, et cetera. What if we told you that wasn’t always the case? It turns out the color blue is a relatively new concept. Scientifically speaking, it has always existed as part of the visible light spectrum [rainbow], but studies of ancient texts have shown that humans didn’t really “see” blue until modern times!
The Odyssey’s Deep Colorless Sea
One of the first people to realize blue’s lateness to the party was William Gladstone—the same William Gladstone that served as British Prime Minister four times in the late 1800s. Prior to his days in politics, however, he was a scholar obsessed with Homer’s Odyssey, an epic poem written in the 8th century BC that follows the Greek hero Odysseus on his journey home after the fall of Troy.
During one of Gladstone’s many readings of the story, he noticed something peculiar: the color “blue” is never used. Now, this wasn’t for a lack of colorful writing on Homer’s part—between both The Illiad and The Odyssey, black appears 170 times, white about 100, red just 13 times, and yellow and green less than 10 times each, but blue? Not once! Which is wild to think about when you consider that most of Odysseus’s journey takes place at sea—a notoriously blue place!
At first, Gladstone thought perhaps Homer was colorblind. But when other classic Greek stories had the same anomaly, he hypothesized that maybe all Greeks were colorblind and eventually evolved to see color. This wasn’t the case, either.
A decade after Gladstone’s theorizing, a man named Lazarus Geiger came along. Geiger was a philologist, or someone who studies ancient texts. He found that the Greeks weren’t the only ones without the color blue. Old Icelandic stories, ancient Chinese sagas, and even the original Hebrew bible were all missing blue!
A Curious Case Of The Blues
Geiger dug deeper and noted that colors show up in the same order in almost every language. First, you get black and white, then red, next is either yellow or green, and then, bringing up the rear, is blue. Looking back at our color count of Homer’s epic poems, his usage falls perfectly in line with this order.
So, what gives? It appears that in the earlier stages of languages, the division between colors was much broader, meaning Homer’s descriptions of a “wine-dark” sea, rams with “dark violet wool,” and “green honey” weren’t just creative liberties. Those words simply encompassed a lot more colors than what we’re used to today.
In fact, this even happens today in modern languages. For example, Russian does not have a single term for the color “blue.” Instead, what English speakers consider different shades of the same color, dark blue and light blue, are two totally separate colors in Russian: siniy and goluboy. For native Russian speakers, the difference between dark and light blue is just a stark a difference as blue and green is for English speakers.
Colors In Other Countries
Author of the book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Guy Deutscher, writes that perhaps the reason for the lack of distinction between colors is because blue just isn’t a color that appears frequently in nature, so we didn’t need a word for it. The only ancient language with a distinct word for blue was that of the Egyptians, who used blue dyes.
So, what about the sky?! That great blue thing looming above us all the time! How did people not have a distinct word for it? Well, maybe it’s not as obvious as we think.
Deutscher performed an informal experiment on his daughter, never inquiring about the color of the sky or ask her what color it is. He taught his daughter the colors, but intentionally never mentioned the color of the sky. Once she was confident in her learnings, Deutscher took her outside, pointed at the sky, and asked her, “What color is that?” To which she had no response.
Deutscher’s daughter had no hesitation pointing out other objects that were blue, but it took about four more months before she gave him the answer: white. It would be a whole other month until she called the sky blue for the first time, but even then she went back and forth between blue and white, depending on when she was asked. She eventually settled on blue, but it was about 6 months after she had first started recognizing blue objects in earnest.
In regards to the connection between language and our perception of everything around us, Lazarus Geiger said this: “Here a whole world of antique relics for our investigation lies hidden, not in fragments, but in unbroken, well-connected links. The whole chain of development of each of our ideas up to its most primitive form is lying buried before us in words, and is awaiting its excavation by linguistic science.”
It goes to show just how influential words can be, even when comes down to something as simple as the color of the sky.