In 1858, scholar William Gladstone counted colour references in Homer’s The Odyssey and noticed a recurring phenomenon – not once did Homer call anything ‘blue’.
The rich description of the ‘wine-dark sea’ may have once been put down to a stylistic choice of interest to English students, but deeper analysis by Gladstone and later Linguist Lazarus Geiger suggests that this word choice was in lieu of the descriptor ‘blue’, which did not yet exist during Homer’s time.
In The Odyssey, the word black appears almost two-hundred times and white one-hundred times, while red, yellow, and green appear under ten times each. Gladstone then branched out to other ancient Greek texts to discover the same phenomenon – that nowhere did blue appear. Geiger’s follow-up of this work looked to Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible, discovering that blue was never distinguished from green or darker shades of other colours.
Geiger discovered that every language first developed words for dark and light, before specialising to describe reds, yellows, and greens. Of all ancient cultures, however, only Egypt had a word for the colour blue. Archaeology and Anthropology and Classics applicants might explore how this emergence of language is tied to material culture, as Egyptian blue dye might have necessitated the creation of a word to describe the colour. In contrast, other cultures had less of a need to use the word blue, given that it is found very little in nature compared to reds, greens, and yellows.
Psychology applicants should explore how the brain holds different associations with different colours, and how lacking the language to qualify these colours may impact the way our brains relate to colour.
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