I was surprised to learn recently (thanks, iain carstairs) that Homer, despite his descriptions of the sky and the “wine-dark sea,” never once used the word blue in the Iliad or Odyssey, composed nearly 3000 years ago. Why? Ancient Greek had no word for that color.
The absence reminds us that we process what we see with the categories that we have and that the world outside our skin is not as directly accessible to us as we like to think.
A word for blue is absent not only from Homeric Greek but also from the ancient Hebrew bible and from the Hindu Vedic scriptures. It’s not that the early Greeks, Hebrews, and Hindus couldn’t see the clear sky or the sunny seas in the same way we do. But they would describe it and maybe remember or imagine it differently. It’s likely that, if pressed, they would have said the sky was a light green or grey or almost white. Their early works were full of words for red, yellow, and green, as well as the shades of light and dark. But blue came later in each culture’s vocabulary.
Perhaps one factor in this strange absence is that unlike green plants and brown earth, few things on the planet’s surface are blue, so blue was rarely used to produce dyes and pigments that might required a word for it. The blue stone Lapis Lazuli, mined in Afghanistan since 6000 B.C., was exported to the Middle East to make rare jewelry, but the first blue pigment was a compound produced in Egypt and used in art, decoration, and cloth. Blue dyes remained expensive and exclusive enough for the Catholic Church, in 431, to make blue the official color of Mary’s robe in works of art.
The experience of seeing and understanding things more precisely when we have names for them is a common one. To stay with the example of colors, I never noticed exactly what the color taupe looked like although I think I have bought Dockers slacks that were labeled as such. Then I read recently that the word labels a range of greyish-browns and is named after the French word for a mole of that color. I’ll probably be seeing taupe more often now.
I wonder, though, if there is some loss as well as gain here. Maybe, if we don’t have a name for the color of something, we are more likely to look at the thing in other, more imaginative ways. Perhaps the Greeks, without blue, looked at sky as an intricate mix of light and whites and shades of air, instead of as simply “blue sky.” I’ve looked at tree trunks in winter as stark, aged pillars. Will I now see them as “taupe tree trunks”?