Blue, the last color

by Juan Seriñá

We work with color every day. We discuss its shades and bicker about its hues. Language has generated names for us to reference color, but it turns out these chromonyms have a very peculiar way of showing up in languages.

I will start with William Gladstone, a British statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom appointed in 1868. However, I am not interested in his political career but in his obsession on Homer and the epic poems. Gladstone wrote and published papers on Homer and the Homeric Age. In Gladstone’s research, he noticed very strange motifs Homer used to reference color in the Iliad and Odyssey. For example, Homer mentions the “wine dark sea”. One might think the poet was using an artful way to describe the color of the sea, but he also described oxen to be of a wine color and ram wool as dark violet. Homer even called green the color of honey and the color of somebody that is pale with fear. Stranger still, the poet did not refer to his forests or leaves as green. Gladstone was puzzled at how somebody so perceptive as Homer could have described colors with “defective terms,” as the statesman named them in his studies.

Gladstone then decided to count the occurrences of each color in the Odyssey and Iliad and he noticed a wild variation of the mention of some colors over others. Black appears 170 times, white 100 times, red 13 times, yellow and green both about 10 times each. But the most interesting of all: blue is not mentioned once!

Gladstone then turned to other ancient Greek books and noticed similar strange uses of color. After thinking about it for a long time, his only explanation was that Homer and all ancient Greeks were colorblind. Today, we know that this is not true, since human color vision dates back over 20 million years. But during the late 1800s, Gladstone was mocked by his contemporaries and his study was considered a failure.

Several years after Gladstone’s study, a German Jewish philosopher and philologist called Lazarus Geiger also found odd uses of colors in many other old books like ancient Icelandic sagas, ancient Chinese books and even in the original Hebrew bible. Similar to the Iliad and the Odyssey, no mention of blue was found in any of these texts.

A quote from Gaiger’s book translated from German:
“These hems of more than 10,000 lines are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely is there any subject devoted more frequently than suns and reddening dawns play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and the ether are unfolded before us and over on over on splendor and vivid fullness. There is only one thing that no one will ever learn from those ancient songs that don’t already know it, and that is that the sky is blue.”
In other words, nowhere it was said the sky was blue!
From Giger’s analysis, a clear pattern of how color is introduced in languages emerges, and it is not random: first black and white, then red, then green and yellow. In each instance, blue is always last.

Why this order? One theory is that a color was introduced to language when there was a need to create that color. Red is conducive to the creation of a reference word since it is very prominent in nature, while blue is very rare. No civilization had blue pigment for thousands of years, until the ancient Egyptians. Sure enough, they were the only ones who had a word for blue.

Perhaps this explains why blue is always the last color to come about in language, even when something as blatantly blue as the sky has persisted over humanity since its origins.

Perhaps we all learn the sky is blue because we are taught and shown since infancy, but some have conducted experiments and studies that suggest humans do not react to colors if no reference word exists in their vocabulary. It appears that we notice colors when we know how to name them, otherwise they fall below our sensory threshold.

There is quite a bit of discussion on the the relationship of color perception and language. I will leave it to the reader conduct research and reach your own conclusions. I hope i catalyzed your curiosity. I found it fascinating and enlightening, for I now find the color blue to be even more special.