• Nicholas J. Johnson

Who invented the colour blue?

I kicked open the bedroom, flicked the light, and shouted at Bridget, my wife:


"ANCIENT GREEKS COULDN'T SEE BLUE."


"Wha—


"BLUE! THEY COULDN'T SEE IT! THEY HAD NO CONCEPT OF IT!"


Bridget blinked twice and then sighed.


"Everyone knows that. There was episode of Radiolab about it five years ago."


She was, of course, right.


In 1885, the soon to be Prime Minister of Great Britain William Gladstone sat down to read Homer's Odyssey. Coming across the phrase 'wine-dark sea' he wondered why Homer hadn't compared it to something blue.


He studied the entire volume only to discover that blue was not mentioned at all. The colour simply did not exist.


Philologist Lazarus Geiger followed up on Gladstone's work and could not find reference to the colour in Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese tales or the Hebrew Bible.


Blue simply didn't exist.


“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 colour, 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.”

To understand why they didn't 'see' blue we need to understand that blue is not one colour, but a range of colours. And the range of colours we call blue were not common enough in ancient cultures to justify their own name. Blue animals are rare, blue flowers are a recent development, and even the sky is more colours than just blue.


However, the science goes even deeper. There is evidence to suggest that we struggle to identify colours we don't have names for.


We don't just name colours we see; we see the colours we have names for!


The Ancient Greeks didn't 'see' blue because they didn't have a name for it.


Linguists call this the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis: the theory that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition.


To test the theory researcher Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia and asked the people of the Himba tribe to spot the odd square out in this picture:


They subjects struggle to do it. Why? Because the people of the Himba tribe don't have a word for blue. Without the language to describe the difference, they couldn't see it.


Davidoff then asked them which was the odd square out in this picture:


While you and I would struggle, the Himba people instantly spotted the square in the second row on the right hand side was a different shade of green.


Because the Himba people have far more words for green than English speakers, they were able to see the difference.


A similar study in 2007 showed that Russians—who use the words goluboy and siniy for dark and light blue respectively—were able to tell the difference between goluboy and siniy faster than they were two different shades of goluboy.


If language affects perception, this raise huge questions for how we perceive the world.


Could a more logical language, like Loglan, make us think more logically?

Were Ayn Rand and George Orwell right? Can we stop people thinking particular thoughts by removing particular words?

If my language doesn't have a future tense, does that change how I perceive time itself?


Before we get too carried away, it's worth noting that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has its critics.


In his book The Language Hoax, linguist John McWhorter says "...language does affect thought, but in very small ways in very artificial and psychological experiments—that’s true. But to call it a world view... most linguists would be skeptical of that."


For more about the neuroscience of perception and deception, check out Deceptology.