Driving back from Suffolk yesterday I had on a podcast from Radiolab, which took the subject of ‘colour’ as a launchpad into various pieces. One of them was the fascinating idea of tetra-chromatics, women (and can only be women) who are born with 4 different receptor cones in their eyes – Red, Blue, Green…and Yellow. Which means that they perceive a whole host of different colour variations to the rest of us.
Interesting enough. But the final piece was what really caught my ear.
It began with Gladstone’s discovery that Homer’s use of colour in The Odyssey is…well, really strange. Nothing is described in quite the normal hue. The sea is ‘wine-dark’ and sheep are violet. Gladstone (aside from his little job being Prime Minister, and all) decided to do a colour analysis and found that:
– Black comes up loads
– White comes up loads
– Red and green are pretty common, but…
– There is no mention of blue. None.
Gladstone was wrong in his conclusions as to why, but later academics took up the trail and found that… well, in ancient texts, blue is rarely mentioned at all. Ever. In any culture – save some Egyptian stuff. As the piece explains, the history of word development in any language shows that ‘red’ is the first word to appear, and ‘blue’ the last. Always.
Why is this? The sky is ‘blue’ the seas are ‘blue’. So surely blue is as much around as anything?
It is thought that the reason blue does not come up until much later is because blue is so hard to make. Blue dye is tough, because there’s not really anything blue to make it from. So a word for it is not created until we have created something that requires that word.
Interestingly, a child will not identify the sky as ‘blue’ initially. They will, as the piece explains, just say it’s ‘white’ or ‘nothing.’ The blue-ness of the skies and oceans are so vast and ‘out there’ that they do not count as blue. It is only when we have created blueness, that blueness becomes required to be described.
A couple of brief thoughts about this…
Firstly – the power of language. Language does not simply create description, it actually creates. Once the word ‘blue’ had been created, people began to perceive more things as more blue. The language not only allowed people to see blue properly, it changed the way we understood the world.
This has powerful semantic consequences, especially for those who may be interested in ‘the word.’ Because this casts a whole new perspective on the opening to John’s gospel: in the beginning was the word – and only once the word had been created could God exist at all, and could our perception of the divine begin to be changed too.
Secondly… why are the ‘blues’ called the blues? The music is rooted in the mood… but why is ‘blue’ a melancholy mood? I wonder if it’s because blueness has always been about the beyond, something slightly beyond the natural, and the immediately tactile. It could not be easily communicated, not at first… was, and is, a state slightly beyond language, beyond straightforward communication.
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