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Why Couldn’t People in Ancient Times See the Color Blue?

Por: Diana Garrido 3 de enero de 2023

In ancient times, the color blue was basically non-existent, i.e., there was no term for it.

William Ewart Gladstone was a great admirer of Homer and his work. During his tenure as British Prime Minister, he would fill his desk with the poet’s works; he could not stop reading them. When those close to him questioned his motives, he replied that he had made a somewhat unusual discovery: in antiquity, the color blue was basically non-existent; that is, there was no term for it.

Gladstone concluded that the Greeks “lived in a black and white world, with some shades of red, yellow and green, but they were not very relevant either, since Homer described the colors very precisely. But blue did not appear in his descriptions, not even the sky was; in fact, he described this place as bronze-colored.”

His premise inspired German philosopher Lazarus Geiger to study the strange phenomenon that did not evoke the color blue. Surprisingly, he found that in the Quran, Chinese stories, Norse sagas, and Indian Vedas there was also no blue color and there was a pattern followed by each of the narrators: first black and white, then blood red, then yellow, green and at the end an indescribable shade: blue.

These theories and premises were left up in the air until Jules Davidoff, director of the University of London’s Centre for Cognition, Computing, and Culture (CCCC) the University of London, took them up again confirming more with logic than with accurate studies that blue is not necessary, in fact, it was named so, but in reality, there is no need to name it.

He experimented on a Namibian tribe whose language does not have a word to describe hue as such, but there are names for green and its various shades. He showed them some green squares and a blue one, and those questioned could not find the difference, they only saw that the blue was one more shade of green. Then he realized that in that area - and much of the world - very few things in nature are really blue: some flowers, bird wings, precious stones, and nothing more...

Faced with this and with Davidoff’s experiment, Guy Deutscher conducted a new study using his little daughter Alma. He taught her all the colors, including blue. He showed her that trees are green, roses are red, and chickens are yellow, but he did not allow anyone to tell her that the sky was blue. When the girl was sufficiently aware of what the color blue was, he asked her what color the sky was. Alma did not know what to answer, and so it was a long time until she concluded that it was white. Later, after seeing hundreds of pictures and hearing other children say that the sky was blue, she was convinced of the same thing.

Blue is an invented necessity, it does not exist by itself. Jules Davidoff asserts that “the more societies advance technologically, the more the range of color names develops [...] With more ability to manipulate colors and with the availability of new pigments comes the need for more refined terminology.”

It is not that in ancient civilizations the color blue did not exist. In fact, this tone was not so abundant, and its shades were variants of green (perhaps lighter or darker, but ultimately green). The need to name what has no precise meaning is what gave the hue its name.

Now we question whether we are really seeing blue or is it a variant of another color, perhaps the blue that one person sees is very different from the blue that another sees. The debate that arose from a dress of different shades that circulated on networks makes a lot of sense now. Just like colorblind people, it is probably the rest of us who are seeing different colors. How do you see blue?

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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