The last color to appear in every language is blue, a color rarely found in nature. People saw blue but didn’t know they were seeing it. Researchers have found that color only exists as it is perceived by an individual.

An age-old question is how much does language tell us what to see, what to think? When it comes to the perception of color, the cultural nuances of our native language influences our perception of color and thought structures.

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The Color Blue in Nature

Through the years, scientists have studied the origins of color in language. Not the occasional off-color joke, but the actual colors that surround us. It was discovered that blue is the last color to appear in ancient languages.

One such scientist was William Edward Gladstone, who went on to become prime minister of Great Britain. In 1858, he wrote a book, "Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age" about Homer and the Odyssey and Iliad. In the final chapter, he mentioned Homer’s perception of color. In his novels, Homer describes the “wine-dark sea,” not using the color blue in any descriptions. Actually, few colors are described and Gladstone concluded that the Greeks must have been colorblind.

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Homer, The Odyssey, The Abduction of Helen (Capitoline Museu) oil on canvas 1662

Linguist Lazarus Geiger conducted a study based on Gladstone’s conclusions. He discovered that the ancient languages of Greek, Chinese, Hebrew and Japanese did not have a word for the color blue. He also studied color in the Old Testament, the Koran, Indian Vidas and Icelandic sagas among other works, concluding mankind’s sensitivity to color. The cause was not color blindness. He theorized that early man first saw images in light and dark and black and white. The first color perceived with it’s own word description was red, followed by yellow, green and blue.

Geiger wrote, of the Vedic Hymns,

These hymns of more than ten-thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and all ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue.

Actually, the first ancient culture with a word for blue was the ancient Egyptians, who were also the first culture to produce a blue dye.

In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, researchers at the University of California and Berkeley scientifically confirmed Geiger’s hypothesis.

More recently, psychologist Jules Davidoff, professor at Goldsmiths University of London conducted a study with the Himba Tribe in Namibia, a culture who didn’t have a distinct word for blue. They had many words for green. When shown a diagram of green blocks and one blue block, the Himba seemed perplexed. They pointed to the blue box but didn’t have a word for it.

Davidoff wrote that without a word for a color, without a way of identifying it as different, it is much harder for us to notice what is unique about it --- even though our eyes are physically seeing the blocks in the same way.

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The Mystery of Color Perception

Today, MRI experiments confirm that people who process color through their verbal left brains, where the names of colors are accessed, recognize them more quickly. Language molds us into the image of the culture in which we are born.

We have one more reason to sing the blues.

Nancy Loyan Schuemann

Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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