When “Blue” did not Exist

In 1858, prime-minister-to-be W. E. Gladstone published a book on Homer’s work, with a chapter noting in details the surprisingly limited colour vocabulary used by the poet. Strikingly, there is no mention of the word ‘blue’ in Homer’s work, nor in the Koran or the Icelandic sagas, which would suggest, according to Gladstone, that the concept of blue did not exist in Ancient civilisations.

Intrigued by these observations, philologist and enthusiastic linguist Lazarus Geiger looked backwards through the etymology of European languages and Chinese, and noticed that, after blue, green is the next colour to disappear, followed by yellow. In the oldest available texts, a vague distinction between light and dark is all that remains. Geiger then posited that the eye’s sensitivity to colour must have been less developed amongst humans of earlier civilisations and that languages reflected our physiological evolution. In 1877, ophthalmologist Hugo Magnus’s research confirmed that the human eye had become more sensitive to light and consequently better able to discern the various hues of the spectrum.

Yves Klein's amazing blueWhen Europeans later realised that many newly colonised, so-called “primitive”, civilisations did not have a word for blue or green, all sorts of eye tests were carried out on these peoples. However, it soon became evident that there was no case of eyesight deficiency. The Europeans’ bewilderment at the lack of distinction between green and blue in these languages seemed ridiculous to the natives who simply did not feel the need to be specific about colours.

After decades of study and debate, it was concluded that the need to name colours only grew as we manufactured goods and created artificially bright colours. Red has almost always been in our vocabulary probably because blood is of vital importance to us. Green and yellow may help us distinguish ripe fruit from unripe fruit and leaves, but pure blue does not exist other than in the sky – on a sunny day – and this great void above our heads is of little importance. Additionally, red hues are easy to find and create artificially, yellow and green less so, and blue is both rare and difficult to create.

So Gladstone was right, after all: there probably was no concept of blue in Ancient civilisations. And where there is no concept, there is no word.

Painting: Yves Klein


2 thoughts on “When “Blue” did not Exist

  1. Along the same lines, Breton has a single word to refer to blue and green, “glas” if I believe my cher et tendre’s brezhoneg-galleg geriadur, and Russian has two different words for blue: голубой for light sky blue and синий for darker shades. I’d hate to imagine what various nationalists would make of that, if the accuracy of colour naming was still deemed a measure of the level of civilisation of nations ;-).

    • Thanks for your comment, Sandra. I knew about Russian having two words for blue and that glas in Breton was blue, but I didn’t realise that it could also mean green. There are other languages that have one word for blue and green without distinction, e.g. Japanese: ao – hence their traffic lights being a bit on the turquoise side instead of green, apparently.

      It’s interesting how we all see the same things but our culture and language make us perceive them differently.

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