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This article claims that no ancient language anywhere in the world had the word for "blue", that for instance Homer described the sea as "wine-dark", and that the color blue has only appeared more recently in languages, more or less at the same time all-over the world. But doesn't bother to say us when.

It also claim that the Himba people in Namibia cannot distinguish blue from green, but can somehow see some shades of green we cannot.


To me, the first claim seems like completely insane, may have a small seed of truth but overall is made-up: I really don't think it's possible for all the population on Earth to suddenly have the same genetic change at the same moment, especially if it's not even something that would give you a great advantage.

The second claim may be true: some regional genetic difference is entirely possible… but since the article on wikipedia doesn't explicitly mention such a thing, I'm not sure.


I tried googling but unsurprisingly I find a whole bunch of articles about the dressgate, and nothing else.

Can anyone shed some light on this? Specifically:

  • is the first claim as fake as it sounds?
  • if it contains some seed of truth, which is it?
  • what about the second claim?

PS: I've found in an Italian-Latin dictionary the word "caeruleum" for "blue", but it isn't useful, since as far as I know it could have been medieval Latin (though I doubt it).

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    The Radiolab "Colors" episode had a segment about this: Why Isn't the Sky Blue? – Nick T Mar 5 '15 at 20:27
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    You should read Michel Pastoureau books (one being exclusively about the perception of the blue color through time). Ancient Greeks and Romans didn't have a word for blue, but that didn't mean they couldn't see what we now call blue. The way we put names on colors is completely cultural, and thus arbitrary. – Shautieh Mar 5 '15 at 22:40
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    Might not be directly related to the claim, but as a general "cannot distinguish blue from green", the Wikipedia article has some info about it, because I read that the older generation of Japanese people couldn't distinguish it. – Andrew T. Mar 6 '15 at 2:18
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    The first claim doesn't say that (paraphased from question) "all the population on Earth suddenly had a genetic change". It says something about the presence of a unique word, not the inability to perceive the thing that the word connotes. – Joshua Taylor Mar 6 '15 at 15:24
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    @Andrew T.: You need to appreciate that there's a difference between "couldn't distinguish it" and "grouped a range of colors under the same word", which is the case with the Japanese word "ao" = blue & green. For instance, I have interior decorator acquaintances who make a distinction between 'ecru', 'beige', and many another tint en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecru but they're all just off-white to me. – jamesqf Mar 6 '15 at 18:31
101

If Homer talks about the dark-wine sea, it seems he also talks about the "blue eyebrows of Poseidon". You can read here about Homer's colorful descriptions that helped orators remember the verses of his poems.

κυανό is known to be "blue" for ancient greeks and became "cyan" in english.

In this book about Homer writing, κυανό entry represents "smalt, blue glass".

So it seems that the ancient greeks did know the blue color. So a lot of this article does not make sense.

( as for Latin which came later, caeruleum is used in Julius Caeasar's Gallic Wars to describe the face painted enemy. See 5:14 "a bluish color". )

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    It's also true that the sea often does not appear blue. – jamesqf Mar 3 '15 at 20:18
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    @jamesqf Right. The sea in any given area might have many different colors dependent on time of day, season, weather, etc. Especially true for shallow waters. – fredsbend Mar 3 '15 at 21:04
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    I have no feel for the accuracy of this translation, but in Book 1 of the Iliad we have "the ship flew through the deep blue water". – Digital Trauma Mar 3 '15 at 21:20
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    The Mediterranean is blue these days. – ChrisW Mar 3 '15 at 21:25
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    One point that seems to have been missed is that when we discuss "this book about Homer writing", we've forgotten that Homer didn't write, and didn't create prose narratives. His works were epic poems which were memorized & performed orally for centuries before they were written down: muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/… So words are chosen to fit rhyme & meter, and stock phrases like "wine-dark sea", "spoke in winged words", "Athena with her flashing eyes" are used. – jamesqf Mar 7 '15 at 4:28
89

The first claim is based on the research of Berlin and Kay "Basic Color Terms", which posits the hypothesis that languages evolve colour terms in the following order, and therefore that ancient languages did not possess separate terms for blue and green:

  • Stage I: Dark-cool and light-warm
  • Stage II: Red
  • Stage III: Either green or yellow
  • Stage IV: Both green and yellow
  • Stage V: Blue
  • Stage VI: Brown
  • Stage VII: Purple, pink, orange, or gray

Multiple counterexamples were found after the original paper was published (and many of them have been posted here), and the authors have relaxed these constraints to be non-absolute, but more towards a general path languages evolve in. The claim as written in the article that no ancient language had the word "blue" is incorrect.

I performed a literature review on the Himba experiment when I saw that article for the first time last week, and it was shown in this paper that the Himba could in fact distinguish the two colours as shown in the video, because their 5-term colour vocabulary had a colour boundary straddling the two shades of green.

The authors specifically attempted to reduce the conflating effect of genetic differences as a factor by measuring the ability to distinguish shades with respect to age of the children. Children of equal age (and therefore linguistic ability) were tested, and the differences between English and Himba speakers increased with age, therefore making it less likely that genetics were at play here.

enter image description here

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    And without wishing to be down on linguists, because it's not their fault people misinterpret their results: just because someone doesn't have different words for things doesn't mean they "can't distinguish" them. I can distinguish many shades of purple, but unlike some of my more purple-loving friends I don't choose to carefully taxonomise them. I don't really know the difference in definition between "mauve" and "violet" although I'm aware of the words, but I'm confident I can look at two purple objects and tell you which is bluer, redder, more or less saturated. – Steve Jessop Mar 3 '15 at 11:12
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    So to be clear, if shown a blue card, and then shown the same card adjacent to a green card (both burou) and asked to say which was the card they were shown before, are Himba people able or unable to complete the task? I suspect that non-linguists understand "cannot distinguish" and "cannot perceive blue", as in the question, to mean that they can't do this, and would be judged blue-green colourblind by a non-Himba doctor. Hence the questioner's talk about genetic change. – Steve Jessop Mar 3 '15 at 11:29
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    @SteveJessop You should read the paper, but yes, you are right, in that they were shown the two colours on a card (computer monitor in the second experiment) and were unable to distinguish the two. static4.uk.businessinsider.com/image/… – March Ho Mar 3 '15 at 12:37
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    This video vidipedia.org/vidipedia-the-video-encyclopedia/viewvideo/166413/… linked to in OP's article shows the methodology of the second experiment. The paper cited in my answer is the first experiemnt, I could not find the second experiment in published format. – March Ho Mar 3 '15 at 12:38
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    @SteveJessop Hmm, I wonder if future generations will say that 21st century Americans didn't know the difference between the storage compartment of a car and the nose of an elephant, because they used the same word for both. :-) – Mark Daniel Johansen Mar 4 '15 at 14:57
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Ancient Hebrew has the word תכלת for blue (or more specifically, azure), as attested to in the Bible:

Numbers 15:38:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner.
דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת:

Exodus 28:6:

and they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver.

וְעָשׂוּ אֶת הָאֵפֹד זָהָב תְּכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר מַעֲשֵׂה חשֵׁב:

So we see that ancient people certainly could perceive the color blue.

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    This doesn't contradict the claim in the article. There is no known reference to blue in Hebrew texts which pre-date the Babylonian Exile. (It's also worth noting that while we don't know precisely when Homer lived, he predated the Pentateuch by 300-500 years.) Also, it's extremely likely that the word "tekhelet" referred to a specific dye, probably murex (same as Tyrian purple), which turns blue when you expose it to ultra violet. It seems possible that the discovery of the dye led to the colour receiving a name. – Pseudonym Mar 7 '15 at 12:10
  • What about כחול? When does that appear? – NoahM Mar 8 '15 at 17:11
  • @NoachmiFrankfurt It looks like it was around in Talmudic times. Not sure about before that. – Scimonster Mar 8 '15 at 17:51
  • Of course, by that time we have other references to blue. On a side note, I was in western Massachusetts for a weekend over the summer. There was a free museum within the techum, so I went and they had some ancient Assyrian artwork which, according to chemical chromotography they'd performed, had lapis-lazuli based pigment. I've got more to that for Chat.J.SE – NoahM Mar 8 '15 at 17:55
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This addresses the second claim.

There are 4 types of photoreceptive neurons in your eye. One is the rod, which is sensitive to green but creates a black/white percept (for "scotopic" or night-adjusted vision) and the other 3 are cones with various types of rhodopsin, a receptor that is sensitive to photons.

In a normal, unmutated (non-colorblind) person, the 3 types of rhodopsin are attuned to the colors red, green, and blue. The brain synthesizes various patterns of activation of these neurons to create percepts of other colors, such as the "non-real" color magenta, which corresponds to no single light wavelength.

There are a lot of other steps between the initial capturing of a photon and the brain telling you "I see a specific color", and of course these could be mutated as well.

That all goes to say that normal humans will definitely be able to see the color blue. Mutation of the photoreceptors in the eye will actually cause colors that are not blue (or green or some other color, depending on the mutation) to be perceived as blue.

So the claim that the Himba people cannot distinguish between blue and green is reasonable. The simplest explanation would be that they have the same/similar rhodopsin in both what are normally blue-attuned and green-attuned cones.

The claim that they can see additional shades of green also makes sense, but would require a mutation farther down the visual pathway. If the mutation were only in the cones, the labeled-line theory would state only that blue and green would be indistinguishable (or would appear as each other arbitrarily). Figuring out the exact mutation that could increase the number of color percepts would be a lot more difficult.

There are discs of neural tissue that are subdivided into wedges in the visual cortex. Broadly speaking, the number of wedges is equivalent to the number of colors that can be perceived. A mutation here could theoretically add, subtract, or change perception of colors. The neural circuitry is a little too high-order for me to comment on much more specifically.


I'd like to comment on neuroplasticity and its role in color perception.

Neuroplasticity can certainly affect how colors are perceived by the brain. Again, because the circuitry is so incredibly convergent and/or divergent as well as high order the exact effects are not well understood. However, because rhodopsin is attuned via the chemical properties of its constituent parts, the ability to create a neural response to a certain color of light is "hard wired". Because different types of rhodopsin are connected via separate labeled lines to the brain, these stimuli are also intrinsically distinguishable from each other.


References

  • Cacace, Anthony T. "Expanding the biological basis of tinnitus: crossmodal origins and the role of neuroplasticity." Hearing research 175.1 (2003): 112-132.

Neuroplasticity (reorganization or re-mapping) appears to be a normal consequence of the brain’s response to injury (Chen et al., 2002). However, it is not always possible to predict a priori whether injury-induced plasticity will be compensatory or pathologic. Plastic changes may be limited to modality specific brain areas and/or crossmodal effects may be involved.

It is generally acknowledged that neuroplasticity is most robust in early stages of development, but continues throughout the life span. In the neonatal period, evidence that functional crossmodal circuits can be induced experimentally between central visual and central auditory areas has been used as evidence that one sensory system may be substituted for another

  • Salzmann, Matthias F. Valverde, et al. "Color blobs in cortical areas V1 and V2 of the new world monkey Callithrix jacchus, revealed by non-differential optical imaging." The Journal of Neuroscience 32.23 (2012): 7881-7894.

In each of the three monkeys (M1, M2, M3) used for this study, visual stimulation with red/green flicker of a low temporal frequency of 1.5 Hz resulted in intrinsic signal maps showing a patchy columnar-like distribution of signal peaks in primary and secondary visual areas (Fig. 2A,C,E). The patches were clearly segregated from neighboring patches by zones of low intrinsic signal responses indicating low stimulus specificity. Thus, these patterns showed the typical appearance of functional color domain patterns reported in previous studies in the macaque monkey (Lu and Roe, 2008). In contrast, black/white flicker presented to the same animals resulted in maps without obvious pattern formation (Fig. 2B,D,F). However, we found faint spots of increased stimulus responses in area V2 of cases M1 and M3 that roughly matched with patches seen in the red/green condition maps (see arrows). This colocalization is consistent with results reported for the macaque monkey that color and luminance stimuli activate the same functional regions in V2 (Roe et al., 2005a).

Reference: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s2/chapter14.html

Color Vision

Color vision is the ability to detect differences in the wavelengths of light is called color vision. Clinically it may be tested with an Ishihara chart: a chart with spots of different colors that are spatially organized to form numbers that differ for ``normal” and color-blind eyes.

As mentioned above, the human has a trichromatic visual system, whereby visible colors can be created by a mixture of red, green and blue lights. The most common form of color blindness results in a confusion of red and green shades (i.e., red-green color blindness). Most cases of color blindness result from an absent or defective gene responsible for producing the red or green photopigment (protanopia, the lack of red; and deuteranopia, the lack of green). As these genes are located on the X chromosome, color blindness is more common in males than in females.

Rods and Cones

Rods are responsible for the initiation of the scotopic visual process. Rods contain the photopigment rhodopsin, which breaks down when exposed to a wide bandwidth of light (i.e., it is achromatic). Rhodopsin is also more sensitive to light and reacts at lower light levels than the color sensitive (chromatic) cone pigments. have longer outer segments, more outer segment disks and, consequently, contain more photopigment. are more sensitive to light and function at scotopic (low) levels of illumination. dominate in the peripheral retina (Figure 14.21A), which is color insensitive, has poor acuity (Figure 14.21B), but is sensitive to low levels of illumination.

Cones are responsible for the initiation of the photopic visual process. Cones contain photopigments that breakdown in the presence of a limited bandwidth of light (i.e., cone photopigments are chromatic). are color sensitive. are less sensitive to light and require high (daylight) illumination levels. are concentrated in the fovea (Figure 14.21A) in the fovea have image of the central visual field projected on them. in the fovea are responsible for photopic, light-adapted vision (i.e., high visual acuity and color vision) in the central visual field (Figure 14.21B)

Color perception in the visual cortex http://www.fss.uu.nl/psn/web/people/personal/dumoulin/PDFs/Wandell-Encyclopedia-2009.pdf

The basis for the relationship between functional specialization and perceptual experience originated in neurological findings: damage to specific extrastriate regions in ventral cortex leads to specific visual disabilities. Four cortical regions in which damage can produce a specific perceptual deficit are illustrated in Figure 8. The neurological deficits illustrated here are inability to recognize faces and interpret facial expressions (prosopagnosia or face blindness), loss of color vision of cerebral origin (cerebral achromatopsia), loss of motion perception (akinetopsia), and loss of the ability to read whole words (alexia). The neurological literature has focused on acquired forms of these deficits, but prosopagnosia also exists in a congenital (developmental) form; it is possible that the other dysfunctions may be discovered in developmental form as well.

Figure 8. Regions of ventral visual cortex associated with specific neurological deficits. Regions implicated in specific visual impairments are indicated: the inability to recognize faces (prosopagnosia; red), to detect motion (akinetopsia; blue), to read words (alexia), and color blindness (achromatiopsia; green). fMRI measurements aimed at isolating these functions typically yield strong activations at these corresponding cortical regions.

Labled-line theory http://www.d.umn.edu/~jfitzake/Lectures/DMED/SensoryPhysiology/GeneralPrinciples/CodingTheories.html

The brain associates a specific modality (the adequate stimulus) with a signal coming from a specific receptor e.g., "light" is detected by the photoreceptors, even if the stimulus is pressure on the eye

In the cortex , perception is localized by modality, resulting in specific cortical areas for each sensation

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    I mean the statements about the Himba, paragraphs 6,7,8. The neurobiology stuff (paragraphs 2,3,4,5) is easy to find on Wikipedia, it's great if you provide links but not necessary, strictly speaking. – Sklivvz Mar 3 '15 at 16:12
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    Okay, I know I read a journal of neuroscience article about it a while back. I'll see if I can find it on my hard drive. – Dustin Mar 3 '15 at 16:15
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    Unfortunately, the "rotating wedge" stimulus is used quite often in neurobiology experiments, so I'm not able to narrow it down enough with keywords. Hopefully the information from the encyclopedia is close enough to what I said. If I can find the article I'll come back and add it as an additional reference. – Dustin Mar 3 '15 at 16:25
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    Some women, thought to be about 1% of the population, have a fourth cone and can see 100 million colors, a hundred times more than the average person. They are called tetrachromats. – tcrosley Mar 5 '15 at 5:08
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    The tuning of the rhodopsin is dependent on the chemical properties of its constituents and is therefore hard-wired. In terms of perception down the line what you're asking about is called "neuroplasticity" and that can affect color perception. It isn't particularly well understood. This answer is to illustrate that you will always have some sort of neural stimulus in response to blue light hitting your photoreceptors, and it will normally be distinguishable from other stimuli. – Dustin Mar 6 '15 at 16:46
8

Concerning the second claim, the differences seem to be cultural/linguistic, not genetic according to this article from the American Psychological Association:

The study tracked color naming, comprehension and memory in two populations over three years. Researchers led by Debi Roberson, PhD, of the University of Essex, compared young English children with children of the seminomadic, cattle-herding Himba tribe in northern Namibia, a country on Africa's southwest coast. [...]

Roberson and her colleagues first wanted to test two opposed hypotheses of color categorization--universalist (the idea that we categorize and remember colors the same way around the world, in keeping with the structure of our visual system) versus relativist (the idea that color perception depends upon culture and language). They did this by observing how children acquired color categories over time in two different languages and cultures. Second, the researchers hoped to systematically compare how the two groups of children learned by tracking over time how they mentally organized color as well as how they named and comprehended color terms.

Across cultures, the children acquired color terms the same way: They gradually and with some effort moved from an uncategorized organization of color, based on a continuum of perceptual similarity, to structured categories that varied across languages and cultures. Over time, language wielded increasing influence on how children categorized and remembered colors.

There's a good chance that the first claim can be explained by the same phenomenon: what colors we "perceive" depends apparently a lot on what colors we have words for.

5

I found the following words in the Latin dictionary at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

caesĭtĭus (-cĭus ), a, um, adj. id., I. [select] bluish, dark blue: “linteolum,” Plaut. Ep 2, 2, 46; cf. Doed. Syn. III. p. 17.

cūmātĭlis (cȳm- ), e, adj. from κῦμα, with the Lat. ending ilis. I. Adj., of the waves: “deus,” i. e. Neptune, Commod. 10, 1.— B. Esp., sea-colored, water-colored, blue: colos, Titin. ap. Non. p. 548, 11 (Com. Rel. v. 114 Rib.).— II. Subst.: cūmātĭle , is, n., a bluish garment, Plaut. Ep. 2, 2, 49.

Indĭcus , a, um, adj. India, I.of India, Indian: “elephanti,” Ter. Eun. 3, 1, 23: “pecudes,” Mart. 5, 37, 5: “cornu,” i. e. ivory, id. 1, 73, 4: “aqua,” Ov. P. 1, 5, 80: “margarita,” Petr. 55. — Subst.: Indĭcum , i, n., indigo, a blue pigment for dyeing and painting, Plin. 33, 13, 67, § 163; 35, 6, 26, § 40.

venetus adj., sea-colored, of a marine blue: cucullus, Iu.

Its definition for caeruleum says,

I. Lit., dark-colored, dark blue, dark green, cerulean, azure, κυάνεος; poet. epithet of the sky, of the sea, and other similar objects (as dark, opp. albus and marmoreus color, Lucr. 2, 771 sq., and syn. with ater, Verg. A. 3, 64; v. under II. A.).

... and later on says it doesn't just mean of the sky" and "of the sea" but is also used for other blue objects ...

D. Of other darkblue objects: “omnes se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugnā aspectu,” Caes. B. G. 5, 14: “an si caeruleo quaedam sua tempora fuco Tinxerit. idcirco caerula forma bona'st?” Prop. 2, 18, 31 sq. (3, 11, 9 sq.); Mart. 11, 53, 1: “olearum plaga,” Lucr. 5, 1372; draco. Ov. M. 12, 13' angues, Verg. G. 4, 482; “colla,” id. A. 2, 381: “serpens,” Ov. M. 3, 38: “guttae (serpentis),” id. ib. 4, 578: vestis. Juv. 2. 97: “vexillum,” Suet. Aug. 25: “flos (heliotropi),” Plin. 22, 21, 29, § 57: “oculi (Germanorum),” Tac. G. 4; hence Germania pubes, Hor. Epod. 16, 7.—Hence, subst.: caerŭlĕum , i, n., a blue color, steel-color, both natural and artificial, Plin. 33, 13, 57, § 161 sq.; 35, 6, 28, § 47; Vitr. 7, 111; 9, 1.—

... (blue objects such as for example steel, and that first bit about the British is presumably about woad).

The use of caeruleum is attributed to Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Pliny, i.e. classical and not just medieval Latin.

  • The article refers to "Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew", which all predate Latin by thousands of years. – Mooing Duck Mar 3 '15 at 17:52
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    @MooingDuck: That's a pretty absurd statement. What is it supposed to mean? Those four are living languages which exist today. Each evolved from ancient languages going back into prehistory. The same can be said of Latin, of course. Assigning an age to any natural language is hard to imagine being meaningful—people speak the same language as their parents, so all languages have an equal pedigree ("time immemorial.") Something measurable could be the oldest extant writings which are identifiably the given language (another can of worms…), which certainly do not differ by millenia. – kundor Mar 4 '15 at 21:22
  • @kundor: It's clear from the context what Mooing Duck meant: Homer was written in Greek before Latin existed. (It wasn't "thousands of years", though. More like 500 years at the most.) The point is that finding an example in Latin doesn't contradict the claim. Incidentally, linguists disagree on what constitutes "the same language" and whether or not that's even a useful distinction. Ancient Greek and Modern Greek are not mutually intelligible, and there is a clean break between Ancient Hebrew and Modern Hebrew. – Pseudonym Mar 7 '15 at 11:48
  • Latin is a well-documented "ancient language". They wrote about blue things (e.g. British woad and Germanic eyes) which other/contemporary (e.g. Greek) cultures would have had no cause to write about. About 1000 years (elapsed between Homer's Greek and Caesar's Latin) isn't very long IMO. The question's "P.S." was about caeruleum so I aimed to answer that. – ChrisW Mar 7 '15 at 12:15
4

To clarify, I see four claims you are skeptical about:

  1. Ancient people literally were not able to perceive the color blue. The linked article states:

Greeks lived in a murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow. Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures.

  1. No ancient language anywhere in the world had a word for "blue".

  2. All languages acquired a word for blue at roughly the same time around the world

  3. The Himba people in Namibia cannot distinguish blue from green, but can somehow see some shades of green we cannot.


The first claim is easily falsifed. Behold the blue hippo:

blue fajance hippo

This faience hippo from the Middle Kingdom Egypt (a thousands years before Homer) is not blue by accident. It is blue because it is painted with the dye Egyptian Blue. [Source: Egyptian Blue ] Since the ancient Egyptians went through the effort of manufacturing this dye and use it to paint various objects, we can conclude that not only were they able to perceive the color, they actually liked it at lot.

The dye was used from 2500 BC onward throughout the eastern Mediterranean area up to and including the Roman empire. The word coeruleum is the Latin word for the dye, and is used in first century (so classical Latin, not medieval - the formula for the dye was actually lost in the middle ages). We can conclude that the the color blue was appreciated throughout the ancient world. And why shouldn't it be? There is no indication of major physiological changes in color perception in historical times. (Color blindness presumably existed in a minority then as now, but note that the most common form is red/green color blindness, color blindness towards blue is exceedingly rare [Source]).

So where did the myth start that that the ancient couldn't see blue? It originated with the observation that Homer (the ancient Greek poet, author of the epics The Iliad and The Odysse) doesn't use color descriptions the same way that we do in modern language. He likens the sea to wine and the sky to bronze. Does this mean he was color blind and thought the sea was purple and the sky was orange? (Well, according to tradition he was actually blind, but never mind that. Most likely Homer was not a single person anyway but an oral storytelling tradition which developed over centuries.)

No, this just means the terms are used to describe the darkness/lightness rather than the hue. The sea is as dark and opaque as wine. The sky is as bright as the lustre of bronze. When you think about it, these terms are much more vivid than just saying the sea was blue, the sky was blue.

The controversial claim is that because Homer doesn't use the exact color terms we use, then he couldn't see the colors we know. This is an extreme form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which have been thoroughly debunked by linguists. The theory states that if a language does not have words for a concept, then the users of the language will not not be able to perceive or understand the concept.

For example many languages have distinct words for male and female cousins. English only have a single word, cousin, which covers both male and female. Does that mean English-speaking people are not able to distinguish the genders of their cousins, or are not able to fathom that cousins can have different gender? Of course not. It just makes it tricky to translate a sentence like "I have a cousin" to or from English, without cheating by adding or removing information.

The strong version Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is rejected by linguists [Source], but lives on in New-Age mythology because it playes into the "if you believe it, it is real" philosophy which underlies much New-Age thinking. For example the New-Age pseudo-science classic "What the bleep do we know?!" used the SW hypothesis to claim that when Spaniards arrived in the new world their ships where literally invisible to the Indians, because they did not understand what they saw. (If you follow this logic then the Americas should also have been invisible to the Spaniards.) The pseudo-science "Neuro-linguistic programming" is also to some extend based on the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Incidentally, color recognition experiments have been used to reject the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The consensus seem to be basically that "the domain is governed mostly by physical-biological universals of human color perception" [Source] or in short: The Ancient Greeks saw blue the same way we do, whether they knew a word directly translatable to "blue" or not.

(Linguist generally does support a weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that our language influence how our minds work, it just doesn't put hard limits on our abilities to perceive or understand the world.)


Regarding claim 2, this is actually contradicted by the article you link to, which states that Egyptian was the only ancient language which had a word for blue. But even this claim is wrong since we specifically know ancient Latin and Greek words for the "Egyptian blue" dye.


Regarding claim 3, this seem to be a misunderstanding of the hypothesis that languages evolve words for colors gradually and in a universal order. The claim is not that on a specific day, languages around the world invented a word for "blue", but rather that "blue" will typically be the sixth color term to appear in a language (after dark, light, red, green and yellow). This hypothesis is controversial and some counterexamples have been found, but it is not totally ridiculous. The answer by March Ho examines this in more detail.


Regarding claim 4, that the Himba people not being able to distinguish between blue and green, the claim is much weaker in the wikipedia page you link to. It just states that:

"It is thought that this may increase the time it takes for the OvaHimba to distinguish between two colours that fall under the same Herero colour category, compared to people whose language separates the colours into two different colour categories."

This doesn't suggest that the Himba can perceive fewer or more colors, only that the language influence how quickly we categorize colors. This points to some complex interplay between the parts of the mind that organizes the sensory experience with words and the parts that see a continuum of color shades, which is quite interesting.


Bottom line: People throughout history have been able to perceive and distinguish colors we would call blue. But they would not necessary have a word directly translatable to "blue".

  • 1
    How does the blue hippo tell us anything? This answer suffers greatly from introducing this non-sequitur. – Oddthinking Jul 24 '15 at 1:37
  • @Oddthinking: The blue hippo shows that the ancient Egyptians could perceive the color blue. Otherwise they wouldn't have any reason to paint it this specific color. – JacquesB Jul 24 '15 at 13:01
  • We seem to be using the word "perceive" in a different way. No-one is claiming that this pigment appeared invisible, transparent or black to the Ancient Egyptians. Everyone can see the hippo. Some people might like the colour, and choose to paint with the same pigment. But, as your link to Egyptian Blue shows, calling this colour Blue wasn't recorded until 1809, and the Egyptians instead probably saw it as a tone of wedjet (which included what we would consider blue and green). – Oddthinking Jul 24 '15 at 13:29
  • @Oddthinking: "Egyptian Blue" is the modern English name for the dye, obviously the Egyptians called it something else but we don't know which name since we lack sources. We do know the ancient Latin name for the dye was caeruleum and the ancient Greek name was kyanos. This disproves the statment that "no ancient language anywhere in the world had the word for blue". The point of showing the picture of the hippo is we can be sure that we are actually talking about the same color. – JacquesB Jul 24 '15 at 15:40
  • I think are talking at cross-purposes. Let's go to chat. – Oddthinking Jul 24 '15 at 16:44
3

Lapis lazuli is a blue semi-precious stone that was mined in Mesopotamia in ancient times as early as the 7th millenium BC, see

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=P_Ixuott4doC&pg=PA86&dq=Lapis+lazuli+++mines+in+the+Badakhshan&hl=en&ei=sW6_TvWKBIKr8AOTn623BA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&sqi=2&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Lapis%20lazuli%20%20%20mines%20in%20the%20Badakhshan&f=false.

Lapis beads are found at neolithic burials and on the eyebrows of the funeral mask of Tutankhamun. From the middle ages, powdered lapis lazuli called "ultramarine" was imported to Europe for use by artists such as Vermeer who used it in paintings such as "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1665). The Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lapis_lazuli shows enough examples of artworks modern and ancient to convince me that people have always prized this blue pigment, implying they must have perceived its colour.

  • The article notes that Ancient Egyptian is the only ancient language which had a separate word for blue, and they had lapis lazuli. – Pseudonym Mar 7 '15 at 11:48
  • @Pseudonym: But do we have any substantial body of writing from any other language that's coeval with Ancient Egyptian? Or coeval with the original composition of Homer's works, which were only written down some centuries later? – jamesqf Mar 8 '15 at 5:31
  • The only thing I can think of is Vedic Sanskrit. – Pseudonym Mar 8 '15 at 6:49
  • @Pseudonym: An online sanscrit dictionary provides a wealth of words for "blue" such as nilaka, nilavarna. A blue lotus is nīlāmbujanma. The sanskrit dictionary also has words for lapis lazuli. [sanskritdictionary.com/?q=blue] [sanskritdictionary.com/… Similarly the ancient Pali language has words for blue. [dictionary.tamilcube.com/pali-dictionary.aspx] (Disclaimer: I speak neither Pali nor Sanscrit and rely on romanised dictionaries.) – cuddlyable3 Mar 8 '15 at 17:40
  • @cuddlyable3, are they distinct words, though, or are they modifiers on a more basic color term? For example, "sky-green" vs. "blue". – Mark Mar 8 '15 at 20:50

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