Owing to a mystical dress that changes colour in the presence of Orcs, colour itself has become a recently popularized topic. In particular importance has been reference to the epics of Homer, wherein there is no mention of the colour ‘blue’ as a descriptor, and how this is used as evidence to indicate that the Ancient Greeks were incapable of recognizing the colour ‘blue’, as they evidently had no word for it.
Before we can approach the mysterious lack of ‘blue’ in ancient Greece, we have to first understand the difference between linguistic differentiation of colour and the actual perception of it. In English, we have a variety of cardinal colours, which represent ‘fundamental’ categories to which more specific shades and hues are said to belong. The colour ‘blue’ for instance encompasses a wide variety of different shades, and both general categories like ‘dark blue’ or ‘light blue’ or ‘deep blue’ are all just kinds of ‘blue’, as too are ‘navy’ and ‘neon electric glitter-blueberry’. On the other hand, English speakers believe, owing to the linguistic distinction, that there is a difference between ‘red’ and ‘pink’. ‘Dark red’ is a shade of ‘red’, but ‘pink’ has its own distinct range of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ that is somehow distinct from ‘red’, although ‘pink’ is itself ‘light red’, even in a range of lightness that would correspond to ‘light blue’. Simply because a language makes a distinction, such as between ‘red’ and ‘light red’ (as ‘pink’), or fails to, such as between ‘dark blue’ and ‘light blue’, does not mean that a speaker is incapable of recognizing the existence of any of these shades or colours.
Homer uses the word οἶνοψ (oînops), which means ‘wine-coloured’, to describe the sea, and also to describe cattle. It’s been said that the reason for this has to do with a lack of the word for ‘blue’, and so Homer could not possibly have described something as ‘blue’ because he had no word for it and thus could not perceive it, and thus the closest thing he could come up with was ‘wine-coloured’. And also for cows. Many of his other colour choices have also been questioned, such as his use of χάλκεος (khálkeos) ‘bronze; copper’ to describe a sky, or χλωρός (khlōrós) ‘green’ to describe honey, or a word derived from κύανος (kýanos) ‘dark blue’ to describe Poseidon’s hair. But of course obviously Homer could not have used that word anyway since apparently Ancient Greek had no word for ‘blue’ in the first place, and thus obviously he never did. Except in the Iliad. And also in the Odyssey.
One thing that seems to be forgotten about Homer’s work is that it is a piece of poetic literature, and this discussion on his use of colour is not a recent phenomenon. Using ‘wine-coloured’ as a description is vivid and emotive, because his tale is vivid and emotive and inspired. If every author were limited to literal dictionary definitions of colour perception, our accumulated history of literary works would have only a single colour: dull.
One common piece of evidence for this supposed lack of ‘blue’ is that there was no word in Ancient Greek that was etymologically related to our modern English word for ‘blue’ and which possessed the same meaning. Unfortunately, this is completely true. Because the word ‘blue’ in English is etymologically derived from a Proto-Indo-European root (*bʰlēw-) which means ‘yellow’. And while on that topic, the English word for ‘yellow’ is etymologically derived from the Proto-Indo-European root (*ǵʰelh₃-wos ), and is a cognate to the Ancient Greek word χλωρός (khlōrós) which means, as noted, ‘green’. Except when it meant ‘yellow’ and ‘pale’ and was used by Homer.
This ‘evidence’ in support of Ancient Greek having no colours except for when they do is especially concerning when the logic of it is applied to modern languages with current speakers who make different colour distinctions than English speakers do. For instance, many languages regard ‘blue’ and ‘green’ as a single colour, of which our ‘blue’ and our ‘green’ are merely shades. And so Mandarin has 青 (qīng) and Japanese has 青い (aoi) and Vietnamese has xanh. But this linguistic distinction does not mean that speakers of these languages are incapable of recognizing the difference between ‘blue’ and ‘green’, and it also does not mean that they lack words for further specifying individual shades of ‘blue’ or ‘green’. Mandarin has 蓝 (lán) for ‘blue’ and 绿 (lǜ) for ‘green’; Japanese has 緑 (midori) and グリーン (gurīn) both for ‘green’; Vietnamese has xanh nước biển for ‘blue’ and xanh lá cây for ‘green’.
In a similar vein to the distinction made in English, as mentioned earlier wherein ‘red’ and ‘pink’ are distinct cardinal colours, but shades of ‘blue’ are all just the same, Russian makes a distinction between синий (sinij) and голубой (galuboj), which are ‘dark blue’ and ‘light blue’ respectively, and for a Russian speaker, these are completely different colours.
Despite their obviously muddy-coloured world and lack of ‘blue’, the Greeks somehow had a vibrant use of blue dye, which can be seen by looking at frescos from Knossos. Evidence of the use of lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan, has been seen in Mesopotamia, such as the eyes of a statue representing a priest of Ishtar, Ebih-Il, at the site of her temple in the city-state of Mari, and in Egypt, such as in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun. Such was the influence and import of lapis lazuli, that the word for the name of the stone itself became a colour word in many languages, ultimately coming into English as ‘azure’. Similarly, the dye indigo, originating in India, was greatly associated with its origin that the name of the colour in Ancient Greek was ἰνδικόν (indikón) ‘Indian’, which was ultimately borrowed into English as ‘indigo’.
The evolution of colour words in languages are very readily linked to their usage and, quite frequently, their application in or allusion to religious imagery. Tyrian purple, a dye produced from sea snails, gave the Phoenicians their name in Greek. Owing to its incredible value, Tyrian purple became associated with the wealth necessary to acquire it and was a symbol of nobility in Etruria and Rome, and with the rise of Catholicism, was worn not just by kings, but by cardinals and bishops, and it remains so today as the colour of the Lenten season. And for Homer, the use of κύανος (kýanos) to describe the colour of Poseidon’s hair is more than just referential, but intrinsically reverential, as it honours the very watery domain that is Poseidon’s.
In looking at the world around us, it is not just our language that emerges from the experience, but our beliefs, as well. This interplay is rooted fundamentally in place and time, swirling about us as we attempt to make sense of it, grouping things into collective sets of ordered data, sometimes with rigid consistency and yet others not so much. It is our linguistic experience and background which guides us as we traverse the framework of religion and spirituality, and through those which we then redefine our perceptions of the world around us. And so although these lines we see because we have created them are convenient to colour in, they just are not as absolute as our statements about them would seem to imply.
If James Hoscyns were a colour, he would be nacre. James Hoscyns is a former recovering child prodigy and professional translator and language teacher who can be found at www.iltlang.com. He can also be found every Monday on ILT’s “Two-Minute Language” YouTube series discussing language and linguistics at http://goo.gl/16iiXI
This essay is awesome, especially the insights into Homeric language and the much-vaunted lack of “blue” in Ancient Greek. Thank you!