The Fascinating History of the Color Blue

By Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

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A friend of mine turned my attention to an interview with Guy Deutscher, an Israeli linguist who published a fascinating book, “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.” In it, he advances the argument that the basis of language is informed by the way we perceive and name colors.

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The book was translated into 8 languages and was selected by the New York Times, The Economist, and the Financial Times as one of the best books of 2010. It is wonderfully written and provides many examples to support his thesis. As I read it, it got me to thinking about one particular color — the color blue — because of it’s fascinating history that perfectly illustrates Deutscher’s thesis that perception of color informs our language.

Water, water everywhere, and not a hint of blue

Even if you haven’t read the Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, you must have heard his famous, and enigmatic, description of the “wine-red sea”. Wine-red? Has anybody ever seen the sea in anything even remotely resembling this color? Could the famous blue of the Aegean Sea, where the Homeric events took place, ever be other than brilliant blue? Literary scholars struggled mightily with this strange depiction. Some attempts were so convoluted as to be laughable, but none were persuasive.

Coming to think of it, another ancient document, based on oral folklore and epic poetry, was written at about the same time in history, the 5thcentury BCE. Yes, you guessed it: the Bible. Surprisingly, both the Bible and the Iliad and Odyssey describe the sea in many ways, like “big and wide”, or “stormy”, or “silent”, or “resting from his anger”, but never blue. (All you Biblical mavens, hold the gotcha emails: The color “tehelet”, mentioned in the Bible was wrongly thought to mean blue. It is now known to be the color purple, extracted from sea shells found on the beaches of Israel and Lebanon).

Let’s dig a bit deeper in historical times: In the ancient tablets of Ugarit ( 8thcentury BCE), where many of the biblical tales originated from, there is no mention of the color blue. In the stories about the myriad fights between the Canaanite god of the sea, Yam, and the god of the earth and thunder and rain, Baal, there are many depictions of the sea, but never its color. We can go even farther back in time. The linguist Lazarus Geiger noted almost a hundred years ago that ancient Indian epics dating to about four millennia ago, like the Mahabharata, describe the ocean in many ways, but never mention the color blue. And the same is true for ancient Chinese writings.

To compound the mystery, the colors red, black, and white are mentioned many times in the ancient manuscripts, and in the later one, like the Bible and the Koran, green and yellow are mentioned as well. In fact, biblical Red is described in many of its hues (“argaman” — dark red, just like Homer’s sea, “shani”-pink, “siqrah”-deep red). And so is Green: olive green, grass green. But not a hint of blue. So what gives?

Related: Evolution of the color red

Early research

William Gladstone was a famous British prime minister at the beginning of the 20thcentury. But what is less known is that he was a classical scholar, and published a seminal 1700-page study of Homer’s epic poetry. In a 30-page chapter, he describes Homer’s strange choice of colors (sheep wool and ox skin as purple, honey as green, horses and lions as red). The sky is studded with stars, wide, having an iron or copper hues. But, not one mention of blue.

Gladstone concluded that ancient people simply saw the world in colors different from the way we see it now. He theorized that the present capacity to experience colors is thanks t the rapid evolution of the structure of the eye. This, we know, is unlikely, because the time span is too short. Bear in mind, though, that he proposed it as the idea of evolution was just getting underway. Lazarus Geiger, the linguist, discovered that in the modern European languages words for ‘blue’ are derived from ancient words for ‘black’ or ‘green’. Black and red predominated in the ancient texts of India. Later texts added yellow, green, violet and blue, in that order. This progression suggested to Geiger as well that some kind of evolutionary process was going on.

A few years later, a Swedish anatomist of the eye discovered that many people suffered from a hitherto unknown deficiency: color blindness. Presto: An ophthalmologist by the name of Hugo Magnus concluded that ancient people were all color blind in today’s terms, and with time, as the eye absorbed more colors, its sensitivity to them increased, and that newly acquired trait was passed on to subsequent generations. Today, we know that acquired capabilities cannot be passed on genetically.

Enter the anthropologists. They wanted to see how primitive cultures that lived with limited or no contact with modern civilizations perceive colors. And they found what they were looking for. In 1898, the psychiatrist W.H. R. Rivers went to the Torres Straits Islands, between New Guinea and Australia.

There he investigated the Islanders’ perception of colors. He was astonished to hear the elders describe the sky as black, and a child describing the color of the sky as dark as dirty water. He and other anthropologists concluded that early humans and isolated cultures were not color blind. They see all the colors that we see, but consider them as simply hues of white or black or red, not worth inventing a special word for.

Modern research

Rivers, the psychiatrist cum anthropologist said that “there must be something that caused those natives to see the brilliant blue as duller and darker than we see it.”

Enter neurobiology. Today, we know that this something resides in the brain. Deutscher believes that ‘black’ is a wider term for the Islanders than for us, that they see blue as simply a hue of black. Is this unusual? Not at all. I see red in many hues. My wife sees peach and orange and strawberry as distinct colors.

But there is another factor at play here. Scientists believe that it is not just a simple case of nomenclature; the Islanders indeed perceive the sky a bit darker than we do. When we get used to seeing two hues as different colors, language trains us to see them as different entities. And the brain then exaggerates these differences, especially at the border areas between them.

And thus blue, which we perceive as lighter and totally distinct from black, is in reality probably a bit darker and closer to black. In a sense, the “obvious” distinction between black and blue is a figment of our imagination. Modern neurobiological research is providing ample evidence for that.

Why were black, white, and red the first colors to be perceived by our forefathers? The evolutionary explanation is quite straightforward: Ancient humans had to distinguish between night and day. And red is important for recognizing blood and danger. Even today, in us moderns, the color red causes an increase in skin galvanic response, a sign of tension and alarm. Green and yellow entered the vocabulary as the need to distinguish ripe fruit from unripe, grasses that are green from grasses that are wilting, etc. But what is the need for naming the color blue? Blue fruits are not very common, and the color of the sky is not really vital for survival.

This is truly fascinating. First, here is a totally unexpected phenomenon: language influencing brain function. But even more “disturbing” is the realization that the way we see the world is somewhat of an illusion, a product of a trick played on us by none other than our own brain.

Which brings us full circle to the ancient Greeks and Plato’s allegory of the cave. He posited that reality is an illusion, it is like the shadows of cave dwellers cast on the walls of a cave by a fire at the cave’s opening. We, standing outside the cave, see the shadows only, not the real occupants.

Reality, as we see it, is illusory.


This post was first published on 07/19/2011. It has been updated, retitled, and reposted for your reading pleasure.

Originally published at on December 26, 2017.

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