...while sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech...
(Homer, Odyssey, book I, v. 183)
Around 1858 William Gladstone (later four times prime minister of the United Kingdom) began to read his favourite book, the Odyssey, for the umpteenth time. All of a sudden, his attention was caught by a detail he had never noticed before: the sea was always described as being “violet”, or “wine-dark”. How strange, he thought.
But this was not the only instance of a peculiar use of colours. To Homer, also the metal of swords and armours was violet, and he even mentioned violet sheep! Honey was associated with green instead. They couldn’t be poetic licenses, for sure, because there were too many of them. Gladstone deduced that Homer – if he wasn’t really blind as it is commonly believed – most probably suffered from colour-blindness.
Gladstone therefore began to count all the colour references in the Odyssey: black was mentioned 200 times, white around 100, red less than 15 times and yellow less than 10. But, as he analysed several poems from Classical Antiquity, he noticed that other Hellenic writers had a concept of colours that seemed to be different from ours: could it be that they were all colour-blind?
However, maybe the greatest mystery of all was that, of all colours, blue was never mentioned.
Fascinated by Gladstone’s work, German philologist Lazarus Geiger decided to continue to analyse the peculiarities of the language of colours. He studied the Jewish Bible, the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Vedas, the Northern sagas, ancient Chinese and Korean texts, and discovered that blue was never mentioned. This was all the more unbelievable, considering that a heavenly sky was often minutely described in the Qu’ran, the Bible and the majority of sacred texts – always without mentioning the blue colour.
In the eyes of ancient people, blue did not exist. They did not even have a word for it.
Geiger noticed that, in spite of being far away in time and space, all different cultures had developed a language of colours that followed the same order, the same pattern.
In the vocabulary of the earliest civilizations, only black and white were perceived (light and darkness). Later on, the first true colour to be “discerned” was red, the colour of blood and wine; then came yellow. Democritus and the Pythagoreans only used a scale of four fundamental colours – white, yellow, red, black. Green started to be separated from yellow only at a later stage, when language became more complex. Of all the fundamental colours, blue is the most recent acquisition, and this is the reason why Homer never mentioned it.
Geiger’s hierarchy of colours, published in 1880 and long forgotten, was acknowledged as one of the greatest and most important contributions to linguistics only at the end of the Sixties. It proved that the way in which each culture describes the world is not arbitrary, but follows the same pattern, which seems almost “anatomically” innate in human beings. The development of language – and therefore of thought – increases our capability to discern the shades of reality, and so to express them. “What could the psychological state – Geiger wondered – of a people that only described the sky as black be? Does the difference between us and them lie only in the vocabulary or does it lie in the perception itself?” The next time you look at the sky on a clear day, ask yourself how you would see it if you were never taught it is blue...