With no reference to the color blue in the Odyssey, the Bible or the Koran, no word for blue in ancient languages such as Japanese or ancient Chinese, could it be that not everyone sees the color blue?
To answer, let’s start with more interesting questions: what’s the color of the sea? The sky? If you can see them now, chances are they are not really marine or cerulean, however a conventional answer would be ‘blue’. Because we know it, or because we see it?
An article from Business Insider dated February 2015 explores the relationship between the color blue as a concept and our human ability to see the color.
Research from the most ancient texts, from the Icelandic to the Hindus, shows that amongst the first references to colors in descriptions, red arrived first, then yellow, then green and finally, blue. In Homer’s Odyssey, the sea is described as ‘the color of wine’, while green and blue are the same word in Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean and ancient Chinese.
From a philosophical point of view, if you have no word for it, it doesn’t exist. More simply put, the difference between blue and burgundy, or blue and green, was deemed insignificant in some cultures and languages. Similarly, today, we call a light and a dark grey, well, ‘greys’, the shades not deserving a further distinction than ‘light vs. dark’. But today, we do distinguish between cerulean, royal, turquoise or cobalt blues.
What happened? Did blue just appear out of the blue?
We know that Hindus and pre-Inca cultures actually used the color in their artworks, but as far as explicit text references are concerned, officially, it’s the Egyptians who introduced the blue color in Ancient History. Egyptians traded and imported the indigo pigment from India to produce a blue dye.
Did the color blue get more attention, hence descriptions, as the pigment spread across other cultures?
This subject matter has fascinated different researchers, including Newton, former UK Prime Minister William Gladstone, and lately, one called Jules Davidoff. Davidoff conducted an experimental study with a Namidian tribe, the Himba (see featured picture), who don’t distinguish between green and blue in their language:
(featured picture with the green and blue square) ‘When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square. But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English.‘
And now another game for you: can you spot which green square is different than the others on the picture below? The Himbas do!
Find which green square is different, and read more about the blue color phenomenon, in ‘What is blue and how do we see colors? No one could see the color blue until modern times’ by Kevin Loria @Business Insider UK (27/02/2015)
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