Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

The sky wasn’t blue until just recently

Last week, the Business Insider published an article about the way we see colors, arguing that until recently in human history, people did not “see” or notice blue. In The Odyssey, it explains, “Homer famously describes the ‘wine-dark sea.’ But why ‘wine-dark’ and not deep blue or green?” The suggested answer is not a mere matter of preference or poetic choice. Kevin Loria, the author of the article, refers to findings from a Radiolab episode titled “Colors,” which claims that ancient languages like Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew did not have a word for blue:

In 1858, a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, noticed that [Homer’s description of the wine-dark sea] wasn’t the only strange color description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet, honey is green.

Gladstone decided to count the color references in The Odyssey, and concluded that the most cited colors were black and white, with some rare references to red, yellow and green. A philologist named Lazarus Geiger tested his findings by looking at texts across cultures:

[Geiger] studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again, but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs, and that is that the sky is blue… [Geiger used these patterns to conclude that] every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine. After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

I am fascinated by these findings, all of which suggest that lacking a name for blue made it harder for humans to notice it. Priorities too must have played a role in human’s color sensitivity. It seems clear to me that, blue being such a rare color in nature, humans had no real reason to worry about it. Colors like red, instead, seem of much more vital importance. If red liquid starts running down my arm, for example, something really bad must be happening.

Blue is a relatively modern color. It is the color of bottled water and US liberals. It is also, in theory, and as the article explains, the basis for one of children’s first questions: “Why is the sky blue?” The article reminded me that one day, when I was about five or six years old, I paused in front of a blank page with a penciled landscape, wondering what color I should paint the sky. Is it white? Or is white just the color of the clouds? Blue was definitely not my first choice, nor was it entirely obvious. It only made sense to me after looking around at my classmates’ drawings.

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor


To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families,” published by Zeteo last fall

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1 Comment to “The sky wasn’t blue until just recently”

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo says:

    I have no reason to doubt the scholarship cited in this article, but the idea that there was no word for the color blue until recently seems rather remarkable. It made me wonder about that miracle, a pair of blue eyes, for which surely it would have been worthwhile to create a word. I found this article on the Internet (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080130170343.htm), which claims that all blue-eyed humans are descended from a single common ancestor who was born 6000-10,000 years ago. Is it possible that the name of the color was invented in certain languages when the mutation showed up in the population?

    As the song says in “The Boyfriend,” “Skies may not always be blue,” but blue eyes have been around for millennia.

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