Is your blue the same as my blue?
I have caught myself several times wondering, where have the everyday things we see and use get their names from? Who thought of them and how were their names decided? I frequently think to myself, do we all perceive the same colours in the same way? Is it all part of an illusion or a matter of perception?
Colour, as we know it, does not exist in the outside world like gravity or protons do. Thus, our brains create colour. They essentially convert a certain range in the electromagnetic spectrum into colour. Interestingly enough, one cannot observe the experiences another individual has with colour inside their minds. Two people may communicate the same colour, nevertheless, they do not know how different each of their internal experiences really are.
It is known that not everybody sees colour the same way, an example being colour-blind individuals. There exists scientific evidence dating back to the 1800’s, that people did not see the colour blue. Diving even deeper along the colour wheel, according to the Radiolab episode ‘colours’, ancient languages like Greek, Japanese, Hebrew and Chinese did not have a word for blue – and may not have even seen it at all.
Was blue missing from the colour spectrum?
Homer, in his epic poem Odyssey, describes the ocean in a ‘wine-dark’ hue rather than ‘blue.’ However, this is not the only odd description made by the poet. As the scholar William Gladstone noticed, although the epic poet makes an extensive description of the weaponry, armours and animals, his references to colours were quite peculiar. Honey is green while sheep are violet. Additionally, black and white were referenced approximately 200 times each, red was mentioned around 15 times and yellow with green fewer than ten. Looking at other Greek texts as well, it was apparent that the colour blue was not part of the picture.
Does this mean that my ancient Greek ancestors lived in a mostly black and white, muddy world, with some flashes of red and yellow here and there?
Philologist Lazarus Geiger further investigated these inquiries by looking at other civilisations across the globe. His studies involved the Qur’an, ancient Chinese myths, Icelandic sagas and ancient holy Hebrew texts, but he did not find any mentions of the word ‘blue.’ Scientists believe that humans could see blue when they started creating blue hues.
Geiger found that Egyptians were the only ones that developed a word for blue, as they were the only ones capable of producing a blue hue. In particular, lapis, a semiprecious stone manufactured in Afghanistan, became highly popular in Egypt due to its bright blue pigment. Blue emerged through the combination of the semiprecious stones with calcium and limestone. Consequently, blue was spread to the Romans, Persians and Mesoamericans. Nevertheless, since blue was expensive, purchasing it was mostly limited to the royal families.
If you cannot describe something it means that you cannot see it, right?
Researcher Jules Davidoff travelled to Namibia aiming at conducting a research study with the Himba tribe, whose language did not encompass the word blue nor did it distinguish between blue and green. When he showed the tribe a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not differentiate among the two and those who saw a difference took longer to decide and made mistakes that we cannot make sense of, as we can spot the blue square. This is because the tribe’s language has more words to describe green than there are in English. Thus, when they were shown green squares with one slightly different one, the differentiation was immediate.
A study by the MIT (2007) suggested that native Russian speakers, who do not have a one word for blue alone, but one for light blue (in Russian: ‘goluboy’) and dark blue (in Russian: ‘siniy’), can differentiate easier than English speakers, when it comes to the various shades of blue.
Therefore, without a word to describe or identify a colour, it is difficult for a person to know why it is unique even though our eyes do see all hues. Blue, most probably, was brought into existence and our ancestors saw it, even though it now seems that they were not aware of seeing it at the time.
Historically speaking, it seems that in the modern world the colour appeared in 431 AD. The Catholic Church used to colour-code saints, therefore, this explains why the colour blue represents the mother of Jesus, Mary’s purity. Through time, the colour she was wearing became known as navy blue, and the colour was associated with innocence due to her figure. Interestingly enough, the colour began gaining association with boys, before the end of World War II. Adding on to that, it is fascinating to see how from a commercial perspective, businesses find the opportunity to commodify the colour, thus selling clothes distinctly for boys and girls. What if I want baby blue for my girl?
Whether the colour blue existed or not at all depends on perceptions and on examining everyone’s roots. It is, however, compelling to see how we all connected through a common colour throughout the course of history, and how everyday materials have originated from it.
This was a fun and educational read! So interesting to see what a colour means to a culture.