Photo: espie (on and off) / Flickr
Photo: espie (on and off) / Flickr

If I were to ask you what color the sky is, undoubtedly, you would say blue. Seems obvious, right? To a modern viewer, yes, but this hasn’t always been the case.

The issue lies in the relationship between color, language, and perception. Does language have an effect on the way we see or perceive the natural world?

This question first came up in the mid-19th century in the research of William Gladstone, a classical scholar who would later become the British Prime Minister. Gladstone first noticed that Homer’s descriptions in the Iliad and the Odyssey did not entirely make sense.

For example, Homer describes the sea as “wine-dark.” Sheep and iron are also “wine-dark,” while honey is green.

Cataloguing all of the color descriptors in Homer’s epic poetry, Gladstone found that there was no mention of the word “blue” anywhere in the works. Another philologist, Lazarus Geiger, continued Gladstone’s work and found that there was no mention of “blue” in the ancient texts of China, India, Iceland, and the Middle East.

The only ancient culture to develop the word “blue” was Egypt, where blue dye was first produced (Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence).

Further, Geiger found that the language to describe colors appeared in similar patterns in different languages. The first conceptions of color for every language were black and white, or light and dark, followed by red, yellow or green, and lastly blue.

Is there a logical reason to this pattern? The 19th century scholars believe that ancient civilizations did not see the world the same way we do today.

The patterns largely due to an underdevelopment of the human eye, which caused ancient people see the world in shades of black or white and red.

More recent research into the subject has led to other ideas regarding this discrepancy. There may be a connection between the development of words and the the necessity of these words for survival, causing words that are not as essential to appear later in the language.

It was not a flaw in the human eye that affected the patterns of language; rather, it may be that a survival instinct affected linguistic development, which in turn changed people’s perceptions.

This is a theory proposed by linguist Guy Deutscher, who asserts that while the sky and the sea were the same color in ancient times as they are today, a lack of word for “blue” caused people to perceive the world differently.

In his book, Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World, Deutscher argues that linguistic differences have caused people to have varied perceptions of the world. There is a fundamental difference in perception, he believes, between cultures that have words to discern colors more specifically.

For example, the Russian language has different words for light blue and dark blue that are common in the everyday tongue. The study Deutscher cites found that native Russian speakers were quicker at recognizing certain shades of blue than English speakers.

Another study done by Professor Jules Davidoff looked into the color perceptions of Himba tribe in Nambia. The tribe’s language has no word for “blue,” nor do they have a distinction between the colors green and blue.

When shown a circle with 11 green squares and 1 blue square, the Nambian tribe members could not easily pick out which square was different, a task that would seem simple for most of us.

However, when shown a circle of green squares with one square slightly off-color, the tribe members had no difficulty identifying the outsider. For most of us, this task is much harder to accomplish.

Davidoff attributed this distinction to linguistics. While the Himba tribe has no word for “blue,” there are many distinct words for “green” in the language, explaining why the second test was significantly easier for the tribe members.

Although it appears that language plays a large role in how we perceive color, it is still unclear to what extent we are determined by the language we speak. Without a word for “blue,” it seems to become much more difficult to determine its uniqueness in comparison with words for which we do have a name.

Survival instinct may be the driving force behind the development of language. The first words that were developed were those vital for staying alive.

For example, black and white were essential to understanding day and night, red for blood, yellow and green for dangerous and fruitful plants. Blue is not commonly found in plants, and blue animals are rare.

Though blue is the color of the sky and the sea, these great phenomenon may be have been recognized in ancient cultures by their vastness, rather than their color.

So what color is the sky? Blue, it seems, but only because we have a word to describe it.