Sky blue, sea blue, marine blue, true blue… blue as a colour, and as a metaphor, seems to be all around us. Feeling low? You’ve got the blues? We live on the Blue Planet. So why is it that research has shown that many ancient languages have no word for the colour blue? Can it really be, as some studies are suggesting, that ancient cultures didn’t have a word for blue because they didn’t really see it?
The origins of this theory come from the work of William Gladstone, who before he became Prime Minister of Britain was a scholar reading Homer’s The Odyssey. A simple exercise in counting the references to colours in the work threw up some surprises. Black appeared around 200 times, white 100, but elsewhere colours were either barely mentioned or seemed slightly odd. Sheep were violet, honey was green. And most mysteriously of all, the sea is described as “wine-dark.” Evocative, certainly, but why not blue?
Further study of numerous ancient Greek texts revealed no reference to the colour blue at all. Following on from this discovery Lazarus Geiger decided to expand colour research across a number of ancient languages, studying Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Not only did he find no reference to blue in these texts either, but he noticed wider patterns around how colour language has developed, common to all languages.
He found that across all languages the first colour words to emerge were for black and white, closely followed by red (the colour of blood, he theorised). Red is followed by yellow and green, with blue and green remaining indistinguishable in language until a much later point. The first ancient culture to develop a word for blue on its own was in Egypt – surely no coincidence that this was also first place that produced a blue dye.In some modern languages the blind-spot over blue remains, with blue and green being confusingly interchangeable in Japan, where traffic lights turn ‘blue’. However a fascinating experiment with the Himba tribe in Namibia suggests that having no word for a colour may indeed limit our ability to see it. The Himba have no word for blue, and no distinction between green and blue. Researcher Jules Davidoff devised a test where members of the tribe were asked to pick the odd one out of a circle of coloured squares. In one set of green boxes a single blue one was very hard for them to identify. However a set of green squares with one subtly different green square was easily spotted. The Himba have many words for green…
Whether language really controls what we see, or not, is still a matter of huge debate. For more on the mystery of blue in the ancient world, and to hear about more fascinating colour-language based experiments check out this podcast by RadioLab.