So, apparently “No One Could See the Color Blue Until Modern Times.” I have it on the high authority of the Princeton Archae…er, I mean, the science section of the Business Insider. So its totes true.
Hm. This is the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet. Someone asked me (understandably, me being a guy with a Ph.D. in this stuff), “Is this true!?” Right away I thought…Iiiiiiiii doubt it.
I mean, any Classicist knows Latin and Greek are full of words for the color blue, and there were tons of blue things back then. Not just, you know, the sky, or lakes and seas and shit. But sapphires and lapis lazuli. The latter, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon was thoroughly covered in, and from which even a blue paint was produced (as we find on some of the recovered interior walls of Pompeii). And, well, I guess I should have mentioned this first, but blue corresponds to a photon frequency that photochemically interacts with a specific group of cone cells in human eyes that specifically react to that specific color. Soooo…how could ancient humans not have seen it again?
Here is what Business Insider tells us…
Until relatively recently in human history, “blue” didn’t exist, not in the way we think of it. As the delightful Radiolab episode “Colors” describes, ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there is evidence that they may not have seen it at all.
Okay. 100% bullshit. But let’s continue…
In “The Odyssey,” Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” But why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green? In 1858…
Sigh. Really? 1858? Go on…
…a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the prime minister of Great Britain, noticed that this 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. So Gladstone decided to count the color references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts and noticed the same thing—there was never anything described as “blue.” The word didn’t even exist.
Gladstone was evidently a shitty classicist. He was right to go for Parliament. He wasn’t going to get employed in philology. A sad pall of shame falls upon Oxford for granting him a first in Classics [sort of].
He had a bozo thought-cousin though…
Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures. … There was no blue, not in the way that we know the color—it wasn’t distinguished from green or darker shades. Geiger looked to see when “blue” started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world. 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.
Nope. All the basic colors have known roots in Proto Indo-European [red][blue][green][yellow]. They thus predate all recorded language. Nice try, Geiger. Oh wait, when did you write? Oh, right, thefuckthehellwayback. So obviously he concluded…
The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians—and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.
Nope. Lapis lazuli and pigments based on it were everywhere, and others were available, e.g. azurite and indigo. Blue glass had been all the rage for thousands of years all across the ancient world. And remember when Julius Caesar was freaking out in his memoirs over those blue-painted dudes he was fighting in Britain? (Incidentally using both the Latin word for blue and glass.) And BTW, since we’re obsessing over how only Egyptians ever supposedly saw their amazing blue-dyed cloth and blue paints and pigments, maybe we should ask Geiger…haven’t you ever heard of trade?
If you think about it, blue doesn’t appear much in nature—there are almost no blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations. There is, of course, the sky, but is that really blue? As we’ve seen from Geiger’s work, even scriptures that contemplate the heavens continuously still do not necessarily see it as “blue.”
Except for all the ancient paintings of it that depict it as blue. You know, but for that. Oh, and you know, all those huge blue bodies of water everywhere. Yep. Blue is so rare in nature. How did we ever discover it?
And remember when Julius Caesar was freaking out in his memoirs over all those blue-eyed barbarians he had to keep killing for ages and ages? He evidently could tell the difference. He knew how to spot him some blue.
And, um, there were blue flowers in antiquity. And blue animals are not so rare. In fact there was a pretty popular blue animal back then. The peacock was a famously known bird, a culinary delicacy across the Roman world, commonly depicted in art across the Empire (and beyond). And it’s really, really blue. As the Romans who painted pictures of them on the walls of Pompeii evidently were well aware.
Okay. Homer might have been a color weirdo. As the article says, “we do not know exactly what was going through Homer’s brain when he described the wine-dark sea and the violet sheep,” although the ancients kind of already had a theory about that: they concluded Homer must have been blind. (Although color blind would do. And it was more common.)
The article also continues that “we do know that ancient Greeks and others in the ancient world had the same biology and therefore same capability to see color that we do” (although Geiger was trying hard to lobby for the opposite conclusion back in ages past). So they are aware there is something hinky here. So the article implies certain scientists ask (?), “But do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it? … Did colors come into existence over time? Not technically, but our ability to notice them may have.” Which is then supported by an experiment on a really hard to find tribe that has absolutely not one thing to do with Greeks or Romans (much less the Chinese, the Indians, the Babylonians…). Da-da-dump. Spish.
It is true that some cultures don’t demarcate words for green and blue but use a covering term for both. As a converse example, yellow and brown are actually the same color, but many cultures choose instead to distinguish them with different words, even though they didn’t have to, they could have just said brown is dark yellow. And for all I know, maybe some cultures do. So some cultures likewise use one word for green and blue. But you know what? Ancient Greece wasn’t one of them. They may have regarded yellow as a shade of green. But they clearly could tell the difference between blue and green, and had words for the purpose. Moreover, even we actually can tell lots of colors apart without even knowing what they are called (there are countless words for different shades of red that I can distinguish…yet I myself only have one word for them: red). So this language theory seems hosed. But I can’t judge that. What I do know is antiquity.
Even before I checked all those things above (providing you now with wonderful links), when I was first asked about this article I knew it had to be hot baloney right away. Latin had a well known word for blue, and it was routinely used to describe the color of the sky: caeruleus. Greek also had such a word, and it has the same Sanskrit root: kuanos. With tons of cognates, too. Latin had even more words for blue than Greek did, although many derive in fact from that very Greek word kuanos, which was very early used to refer to the color of the blue cornflower (one of those blue flowers that was supposed to not exist back then), and used regularly to describe lapis lazuli, that well-known stone I mentioned before, used in art and jewelry, even major public monuments, and as the tint for blue pigment.
Honestly. How else could Romans and Greeks have kept referring to blue-eyed barbarians (as far back as Xenophanes, fr. 14), without ever having a word for blue? At most one might say caeruleus, for example, could sometimes be used for dark green. But that’s extremely rare (likewise kuanos in Greek). But we already know why that would be—most particularly why that would occur so rarely. Because, obviously, some authors were color blind.
So I don’t know what this article is up to, or who they are getting this from. No. Sorry. Ancient Greeks and Romans could see and recognize blue, and distinguish it from green, and had plenty of dedicated words for doing that. Myth busted.