Crete in the midst of a wine-colored sea…
“The island is Crete in the midst of a wine-colored sea…” Homer wrote in The Odyssey.
Yes, his sea is not blue, but “vine-colored”. Modern readers try to interpret this as a deliberate allegory, an allusion to the mystery of the sea element, its heady strength and power. But why are the poet’s sheep purple and honey green?
The word “blue” did not exist in ancient Greek.
The word kuaneos, which later came to mean “blue” in Greek, appears in the text to describe Zeus’ eyebrows, Hector’s hair, or a dark cloud that could not be blue.
Not only Homer’s “palette” was limited to five colors (shades of metal, black, white, yellow-green and red). Empedocles, a Greek philosopher who lived several centuries later, was convinced that all colors fall into four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow.
Another philosopher, Xenophanes, saw the seven-colored rainbow familiar to us as three-colored: purple, green and red.
The absence of blue is noted both in the New Testament and in the Torah. Old Japanese uses the same kanji for blue and green, and even modern Japanese describes, for example, newly blossomed leaves as “bright blue.”
The only ancient people who knew the word “blue” were the Egyptians. It is the only ancient culture that produced blue dye.
Don’t people perceive color until they have a word to describe it?
The author of Through the Mirror of Language: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, linguist Guy Deutscher, conducted an experiment on color perception in his own nursery. Deutscher raised his daughter trying not to describe the color of the sky and once asked her what color she saw above her head.
Little Alma had no idea about this. For her, the sky was colorless. At first the girl decided that it was white, and then it was blue. But blue wasn’t the first color she named.
To answer the question of how people perceive a color in whose language there is no name for this color, Jules Davidoff, a psychologist at the University of London, went to Namibia and settled in the Himba tribe. He already knew that the representatives of the tribe did not distinguish green from blue and spoke a language that did not contain blue.
When the Himba showed a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square, they couldn’t choose which one was different from the rest. And those who did notice the difference did so after a few tries.
The plasticity of color perception is confirmed by an optical illusion called “Afterimages” (look at the dot in the picture below, and when a black and white image appears, you will see it in color). The essence of this illusion is that the more our light receptors are open to the perception of the same color, the more they get tired and therefore begin to reproduce the color in the negative. As a result, yellow becomes blue, and red becomes green. This is pure physiology, but it shows how unstable our color perception is.
Other well-known experiments, such as the “invisible gorilla” that ran onto a baseball field and beat its chest without anyone noticing, also demonstrate how our cognitive processes determine what we see. The brain is designed to recognize patterns and focus on things that are useful to us. Everything else is simply ignored.
This explains why Homer didn’t have a word to describe the color blue. For him, the sky was really bronze, and the color of the sea resembled the overflow of wine. Since there was no concept of “blue” in his mind, this hue did not exist in his perception.
The absence of words for certain concepts in a particular language leads to the fact that for us they do not exist. This is an occasion to reflect on how limited our view of the universe is.