Monday, June 3, 2013

Seeing Red

(append to Cultural Evolution of Basic Color Terms)

Why Isn't the Sky Blue?
Radiolab [listen]

tl;dr: Homer was 'colorblind', as were most humans circa 0 BCE, and the only color they could see was red. Listen to the broadcast, taste the rainbow.

The joys of a comments page (archived for personal entertainment)...

Nicolas Collignon from copenhagen
Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green...In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.'
Jul. 25 2012 05:46 PM

Yes, we do refer to the green light as the "blue light", and when the trees are full of very healthy green leaves, we say the trees are very blue. We see green and we have a word for green, but for certain items, we use the word blue, even when they are green...
Jun. 10 2012 03:02 AM

There's a Korean word that describes both green and blue as well, but it's the opposite of what was mentioned in the podcast as they're both considered 'bluish' instead of green. The five traditional colors are Black, White, Red, Yellow and Blue, and there is no native word that's specific for 'green.'
Apr. 09 2013 07:11 PM

Tani from Canada
It's also interesting to me that Russian has two words for blue, ??????? (goluboi) which is light blue and ????? (sinii) which is dark blue, but they don't think of them as the same color, which of course is how English speakers think tend to think of them...
Oct. 05 2012 12:09 AM

Misti Wudtke from Ohio
...while reading Snorri Sturluson's Edda, was struck by the description of the rainbow bridge Bifrost (called Bilrost in other sources):
"You must have seen it, maybe it is what you call the rainbow. It has three colours and great strength and is built with art and skill to a greater extent than other constructions..."...the same term was used both for blue and black...
Sep. 06 2012 01:22 PM

Clark from Newcastle Australia
In English we have plenty of Black, White, Brown, Grey and Green surnames, but there aren't a lot of Blues around. This topic interests me since my surname is derived from the Gaelic word 'gorm' for blue. However, when I looked into it, 'gorm' can mean blue or green.
Sep. 06 2012 01:22 PM

to from Raleigh
what is lapis lazuli and indigo? Two highly prized "blue" things of the ancient world.
Oct. 04 2012 12:34 PM
ultros from Oakland, CA
There are two blue-ish words used in the Hebrew: sappir (5601) and tekeleth (8504). Sappir is used almost exclusively in reference to the actual mineral sapphire or lapiz lazuli. It's often used in lists containing other minerals like diamond, turquoise, or chalcedony. Tekeleth is used almost exclusively to refer to dyed fabric. Misha's link to wikipedia gives a good explanation about how this is a very specific dye made from shellfish. As far as I can tell, neither the sky nor the ocean is ever called sappir or tekeleth.
Jun. 23 2012 06:31 PM
Arlo from PDX
To those of you citing the blue things in the Hebrew Bible. The question at issue is not whether blue things appear, but that an actual word like blue is used to represent ALL blue things!
Jun. 07 2012 04:07 PM

SURFERS (and neolithic outdoorsmen)
glassgirl from seattle
when people are in the sun a long time (like surfers) their corneas go "yellow" and lose the ability to see purple and blue hues...the problem of ancient scholarly manuscripts - the author is most likely an adult and after years of exposure have gotten a yellow tint in their corneas and thus a filter that blocks blues and purples.
Jul. 18 2012 01:18 AM

Elan' from Los Angeles, Ca.
And after you notice what blue looks like, what that color really is, you can't go back.
May 28 2012 09:51 PM


In response to the perplexing question of why the sky is called "black" in some cultures (p67-68): Perhaps qualities usually associated with black things such as "deep" voids or "empty" shadows are what make the bright blue sky "black" for these people.

Color Naming: The color of a thing in abstraction from the particular thing itself.

Color-Making: The interest in color as an abstraction is likely to develop hand-in-hand with the artificial manipulation of colors, when color comes to be seen as detectable from a particular object. ... Blue is extrememly rare in nature and is very difficult to make...
(p92, referencing Gladstone)

regarding the naming of colors/cultural evolution etc.:
"smells, unlike colors, do not have names of their own: they are always identified by what they are smells of."
-The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton, 2009, p211

Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, 2011
Linguistic relativity and the color naming debate, link
Gladstone, W.E. (1858). Studies on Homer and the Homeric age. London: Oxford University Press.
William H. Durham, Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity, 1991, link

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