Why ancient people did not see blue

William Ewart Gladstone research

Blue appeared in human history relatively recently – at least in the form in which we know it now, it has not been for a long time. In ancient languages there was no word for describing blue – neither in Greek, nor in Chinese, nor in Hebrew was there a corresponding lexeme. And without the word for color, people could not see it at all.




As we understood that blue is not enough

As you know, in the Odyssey, Homer describes a “sea of dark wine”. But why “the colors of dark wine” and not “dark blue” or “green”? In 1858, scientist William Gladstone, who later became prime minister of Great Britain, remarked that this is not the only strange description of the color of a great Greek. Despite the fact that the poet in each song gives descriptions of complex details of clothing, armor, weapons, facial features, animals and much more, the colors he mentions seem strange: iron and sheep are purple, honey is green.

Gladstone decided to calculate how many times each color is mentioned in the book. Black occurs about 200 times, white – about 100, but the rest of the colors are rarely mentioned: red – less than 15 times, yellow and green – less than 10. After studying other ancient Greek texts, Gladstone discovered the same pattern – there was nothing in them that described would be like “blue”. That word did not even exist.

Gladstone suggested that this may have been a unique feature of the Greeks. But philologist Lazar Geiger continued his research and found out that this pattern can also be traced in other cultures.

He studied the Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories and the Hebrew text of the Bible. Analyzing Hindu Vedic chants, he notes: “These texts, including more than ten thousand verses, are full of descriptions of heaven. It is unlikely that any object is described more often. The sun and the play of color on the edge of the sky reddening at sunrise, clouds and lightning, air and ether – all this unfolds before us again and again. But in these ancient songs it is not mentioned anywhere that the sky is blue.”

These nations did not have blue – because it could not be distinguished from green or darker shades.

Geiger decided to find out when the word “blue” appeared in the languages, and discovered a strange pattern. In each language, there were originally words for black and white, darkness and light. The next occurrence of the color designation in each language learned is the word red, the color of blood and wine. After red, traditionally appears yellow, and later – green (although in some languages yellow and green are interchanged). The last in all languages comes blue.

The only ancient civilization that created the word for blue was the Egyptians – and it is only natural that the only culture that produced the blue dye was also ancient Egyptian.

If you think blue is not so common in nature: blue animals almost do not exist, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly the result of breeding. Of course, there is sky, but is it really blue? As we learned from the work of Geiger, even in the sacred texts in which the sky is constantly mentioned, it is still not necessarily “blue”.




Is the sky really blue

Researcher Guy Deutscher, author of the book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different, conducted a social experiment. In theory, one of the very first children’s questions in the whole world is “Why is the sky blue?”. The scientist raised his daughter, trying never to draw attention to the color of the sky, and then once asked her what color she saw when she looked up.

Alma, the daughter of a researcher, did not know the answer. For her, the sky was colorless. At first she decided that the sky was white, and then eventually that it was blue. That is, the blue color was not the first one that she saw, and it was not the answer to which she intuitively tended, although it was on him that she finally stopped her choice.




So, before this word appeared, did people not see blue?

With this assumption, everything is a little more complicated, because we cannot say exactly what Homer was thinking when describing a sea of “dark wine” colors and a purple sheep – but we do know that the ancient Greeks and in general all ancient civilizations had the same structure eyes and brain, and therefore the same ability to distinguish colors as we do.

But can you see something that you don’t have the right word to describe?

In search of an answer to this question, researcher Jules Davidoff went to Namibia to visit the Himba tribe. This tribe speaks a language that does not have a special designation for blue, in it blue and green are “fused” at the lexical level.

As part of the experiment, members of the tribe were shown a circle, where 11 squares were green and 1 was blue. Most of the participants could not choose one that was different from others. Those who still noticed the difference spent much more time and made more attempts at the same time than it would have required even a visually impaired person from a developed country.



On the other hand, the Himba tribe had more words to define shades of green than in English. Looking at the circle of green squares, one of which is slightly different in color from the rest, they can instantly determine which of the squares is not the same as all. And you?

Which square is different from others?

For most of us, this is a difficult task.

Give up?

Here is a different square:

Davidoff came to the conclusion that without a word to describe color, without identifying it as being different, it is much more difficult for us to notice the difference between colors – even if our organs of sight have exactly the same physiological characteristics as the eyes of those who easily see this difference.

It turns out that before blue became a common concept, people could see it – but they did not seem to know what they were seeing. If you see something, but do not know about it, does it exist? A big question that should be redirected to representatives of the science of neurophilosophy existing recently.