BIRTH OF THE BLUES
saac Newton, the father of modern optics, knew very well that the phenomenon of colour corresponds objectively only to differences in what we would now call the wavelengths of light reflected from things in the world. Our perceptual system codes these wavelengths into what we experience as colour to help us make more subtle visual discriminations, but what actually reaches our eyes is simply different quantities of energy.
Colour is perhaps the most easily intelligible example of the gap between the way that our senses perceive the world and the intrinsic nature of reality. And yet there are few sensory experiences, apart from smell, that have a more immediate effect on our moods and feelings, even before we consider the powerful cultural associations of colours.
But there are still more surprising aspects to our experience of colour. For the past century and a half, scholars have been pondering the relation between language — the range of words available to name colours — and the hues that we actually see, or perhaps we should more accurately say, consciously distinguish.
In 1858 William Gladstone, later Liberal prime minister of Britain, published an extensive study of Homer and the Homeric world, pointing out among other things that Homer’s vocabulary of colours seemed strangely limited. Black and white appear frequently, red is relatively common, but there seemed to be no word for yellow nor, most strikingly, for the colour blue.
Whether this is absolutely correct depends on how one is to understand the words kuaneos, from which we derive the word cyan, and which later meant dark blue, though it probably signified black or simply very dark to Homer, and glaukos, usually thought of as bluegrey, like the eyes of the goddess Athena, though perhaps originally only bright. But the fact remains that Homer does not describe either the sea or, even more surprisingly, the sky as blue even in the course of a story as exposed to both as the Odyssey.
Gladstone suspected — with brilliant insight as it turned out — that Homer’s colour terminology was essentially tonal. He inspired an equally brilliant contemporary in Lazarus Geiger, who studied other ancient texts, including the Vedic hymns, the Hebrew Bible and ancient Chinese, and similarly found no trace of blue. But Geiger went further and inferred the order in which colour names appear in the history of languages.
In the age of Darwin, Geiger was tempted to postulate that our capacity for colour vision had evolved physically since ancient times. Hugo Magnus developed this suggestion into a theory of the evolution of the eye that held sway until the early 20th century, when it gradually became clear that the physiology of perception had not changed within recorded history and that the explanation for the apparently slow development of colour terminology and perhaps colour perception was more likely to be found in culture.
The extraordinary intellectual adventure and often impassioned debates that began with Gladstone’s observation were related a few years ago in a fascinating book by Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass (2010), which sets the question of language and colour perception at the heart of broader debates about language and culture, and ultimately about the extent to which the structures of language are determined by nature or by culture.
Geiger’s theory about the order in which colour names appear in languages was essentially confirmed by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in Basic Colour Terms (1969), although they were probably unaware of his work. All languages have words for black and white — proving the primacy of tonal value — and the first proper colour to be named is always red; the second is either yellow or green and the third is the other of yellow and green. This sequence may in fact shed light on the Homeric word chloros, which seems to mean yellow in some contexts and green in others. Only after all these colours have been identified is blue finally given a name. The late adoption of blue, and its perhaps residually marginal status, may be reflected in the natural history writings of Pliny. Speaking of the great an- cient painters of Greece 500 years before his own time, he observes that they restricted themselves to four colours, which turn out to be the universally earliest ones: black, white, red and yellow.
This passage in an author who was widely read in the Renaissance naturally caught the eye of contemporary artists and theorists, and although scholars differ in their estimation of its impact, it is hard not to be struck by the relative and sometimes complete absence of blue in the late work of Titian, paradoxically reputed to be the greatest colourist of all.
Deutscher suggests, following Gladstone, that we name a colour only when we are capable of making a pigment to produce that hue, and that once we have given it a name we are much more likely to perceive that hue in the world. The theory has an appealing logic, reminiscent of Benedetto Croce’s principle that we know what we make.
One explanation for the universal primacy of red from this point of view is that red pigments are the most universally accessible in the form of natural ochres and as such are used by tribal peoples all over the world. But the motivation for wanting to make red in the first place is undoubtedly its association with blood and life.
Blue, unlike red, is neither easy to produce as a pigment, nor common as a colour in nature, nor associated with anything vital and visceral like blood. There are, for example, many flowers and fruits that are red and very few that are blue.
The most notable exception — though seemingly a very big one — is the blue sky, which should have been even more inescapable to early people living almost entirely outdoors. But Deutscher cites an experiment he did with his infant daughter. He taught her the names of all the colours, including blue, and showed her examples of them; all except the sky. When at length he asked her what colour the sky was, she was stumped at first, and finally replied that it was white. Only after a couple of months of