We often take the beauty of colour for granted. How would you explain the colour red to a blind person? With that in mind, how do we know that the colour we see with our own eyes is the same hue that others see? A scholar by the name of William Gladstone came across a similar question in 1858 while studying ancient Greek literature. He noticed that in most literature of ancient times, the description of colour was wildly inconsistent, such as the sea being described as “wine-dark”, the sky being “copper-coloured” and other oddities such as violet sheep and green honey. After further analysis, Gladstone found that white and black were referenced frequently, while other colours were much rarer, with red, yellow and green being the most common colours respectively.
Another scholar named Lazarus Geiger expanded on Gladstone’s research and found that throughout ancient literature – including the Bible, Hindu poems, ancient Chinese stories and Norse tales – described beautiful scenes while omitting a certain detail: a blue sky. It appeared that the colour “blue” did not appear in most languages until a certain point in time, despite the people having lived under the same blue sky that we do now.
Geiger tracked the appearance of different colours in different languages and found a pattern of development. Each language would typically describe white (light) and black (dark) first. The next colour to develop was red, then yellow and green, with blue being one of the last colours to appear. This is likely related to the abundance of each colour (e.g. blood, dirt, vegetation) and the ease of making coloured dye (blue dye is notoriously difficult to make).
This raises an interesting question: if the ancient Greeks did not have a word for the colour blue, could they still perceive the colour blue? Biologically speaking, our eyes are not so different to that of the ancient Greeks. But of course vision is a two-part process – your eye captures the image and then your brain processes the image. Does language have a significant enough impact on how we perceive our world?
There is a tribe in Namibia whose language does not distinguish blue and green. A study was held where people from this tribe were shown a circle of 12 squares – 11 green and 1 blue. To the researcher’s intrigue, the men and women of the Himba tribe could not tell which square was the odd one out – suggesting that their brain was processing the two colours as identical. However, the Himba language has more words distinguishing shades of green than English. In another study involving a circle of green squares with one square being a slightly different shade of green, the Himba tribe could pick out the different square much more easily than English-speakers.
The so-called “colour debate” is a hotly debated topic, with some arguing that language plays a crucial role in determining our perception of the world, while others state that language is separate to our senses. What did the ancient Greeks see when they gazed up into the sky? If we cannot describe something with words, then does it truly exist? But one thing is clear – things are not always as they seem.