Some Colorful Language
There is an ongoing debate about what color is. Galileo thought that objects have no color of their own, that it’s all in our minds. The other school of thought, color realism, holds that they do have color, and that’s what we see when we look at them. It’s a ridiculous argument to me, because something has to be perceived in order for the brain to process it, tying both theories together. What I find more interesting is how color is perceived in the first place, and one of NPR’s “Radio Lab” shows really ricked up my ears.
Before he became a four-time British Prime Minister, William Gladstone was a scholar of the classics, especially Homer. He was puzzled by many of Homer’s color descriptions. “Comes the dawn, rosy-fingered” was no problem, but “wine-dark sea” or “honey faces cold with fear” seemed odd. So he went through The Iliad and The Odyssey, cataloguing the number of times each color was mentioned. Black was used 170 times, and white about 100, which wasn’t surprising. Red was next at 15, again no surprise; it’s the most vivid color. Green and yellow came in at under 10. But blue — no mention at all! How could that be? He published a book about it in 1858, which came under the attention of Lazarus Geiger, a German philologist. Geiger examined other ancients texts; Greek, Chinese,Vedic poems of the ancient Hindus, the Jewish Torah, and Norse sagas. He found no mention of the color blue, either, anywhere. I’m not much for mystery fiction, but I love a real mystery. As an artist I’m pretty intimate with colors, and philology is another of my passions. That’s a branch of linguistics concerned with language history and development.
Were the ancients colorblind, or has humanity evolved its color sense only in the last few thousand years? No, because we know that those ancient Greek temples and statues that are white today, were once vividly colored. As for Homer being blind, that’s debatable too, as well as the possibility that he ever existed at all, or was the amalgam of several poets. And to throw further confusion into the mix (while providing perhaps a clue), there was one ancient culture that did have a word for the color blue — the Egyptians. In that part of the Mediterranean is a mineral called lapis lazuli, which, when ground up and mixed with a binder, made a beautiful bright blue. The best quality Ultramarine Blue, widely used by artists, is made from it. When I was in Europe I saw many medieval manuscripts, some seven or eight hundred years old, and the blue was as still as vivid as the day it was applied. In fact, it was by far the most expensive of colors, more costly even than Persian gold. The Egyptians were one of the first cultures to use it, so naturally they needed a word for it.
Blue is one of the rarest colors in nature. Yes, there are blue flowers, but not a lot of other blue things. What about the sky, or bodies of water shimmering blue with reflected light? (Where is Hercule Poirot when we really need him?) If these other cultures didn’t use blue, they had no need for a word. But then what did they see when they looked up at the sky? We don’t know; a very light gray, most likely. Or did they see the blue as we do, but for some reason it didn’t register as a color? Scholars have traced the names of colors, and their first appearance in ancient texts. Black and white are first, of course. Red is next, being the color of blood, and also one of the first made from earth minerals like iron oxide (which gives rust its color). The theory goes that a name for a color arises when things of that color need to be made or used, as with the Egyptians. I dug a little further into the etymology: lapis is ‘stone’ in Latin, and lazuli comes from the Arabic ‘azula,’ blue! I guess Lazarus Geiger never got around to examining the ancient Arabic texts.
Humans have had color vision since before we first stood up. The eye has two types of photoreceptors, or optic cells — rods and cones. Rods are far more numerous, and they detect light and darkness. The cones have three color receptors; red, green and blue, so humans are trichromatic. Wait, Mr. Coyote, don’t you mean red, blue, and yellow? Aha.—now you’re talking about pigments, and the three primary colors. You mix blue with yellow to get green, and so on. Light is different, though. Paints, and the colors of things, are “subtractive,” meaning a red apple absorbs (subtracts) all colors except red, which it reflects. If you mix all the colors you get black. Light is “additive,” in that all the colors of light mixed together make white. And though it sounds counterintuitive, red light mixed with green light produces yellow. Look at where yellow is in the rainbow. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first color TV. I got up close to the screen, and there were nothing but red, blue, and green dots. Then I backed up and saw all the colors those little dots made. I was confused, because in school we had learned the three primary colors were red, blue, and yellow. Optics never came into it; we were painting.
I’ve always been fascinated by colors — primary, secondary, and complimentary. Do you remember that picture in a middle school textbook that showed the American flag in its complimentary colors? The stars were black on a field of orange, and the stripes were green and black. You’d stare at it for about a minute, and when you looked at a white piece of paper there was the flag, in its proper colors. It was like magic!
Isaac Newton proved that each color of light has its own frequency. To help you understand, here’s a basic diagram of what’s known as the electromagnetic spectrum:
gamma rays l x-rays l ultraviolet l V l infared l microwaves l radio
Gamma rays ore on one end: higher frequency, shorter wavelength. Radio is on the other end: lower frequency, longer wavelength. The capital V in the middle represents the visible part of the spectrum that humans see. Ultraviolet bleeds into Violet, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red, then infared. Some humans lack one of the three color receptor cone cells, and are “colorblind.” Different animals see more or less, depending on how many color receptors they have. Dogs and cats are absent the red cones, so their color perception ranges from blue and violet to yellow and green. The mantis shrimp has around 16 color receptor cones, meaning it can see further into ultraviolet and infared, and even subtle differences in our visible colors that we’re unaware of, like yellow yellow yellow green.
So where does that leave the ancients? I’ll try to shed a little light on that (sorry, I couldn’t resist). We have to avoid the mistake of assuming that ancient peoples saw color differently, due to some underdeveloped color sense. To them, brightness and shine or darkness and shadow may have been more important than hue. It may be that our perception of colors hasn’t changed, but the way we choose to express them in language. In Homer’s case, he may have used “wine-dark sea” metaphorically. He mentions it right after a battle where many were killed. There was plenty of wine-dark blood. Linguists will say that language shapes thought, but why couldn’t language reflect thought? (Sorry, I did it again.) In Papua New Guinea is a tribe called the Ndani, who only have two color words: ‘mili,’ for cool and/or dark, and ‘mola,’ for warm and/or bright. Apparently that’s all they need.
My two eyes see subtle difference in some colors, probably because I don’t have binocular vision, where my brain averages out the colors into one. But humans do have discrepancies in color perception, and nowhere is there a better example than “the dress.” In February, 2015, a photo of a dress went viral and stirred up great controversy. Was the dress gold with white trim, or black with blue trim? People were divided, each insisting on their own view. To make matters worse, Wired magazine confirmed that the original was gold and white, while Wikipedia confirmed the opposite. How we see color depends a lot on lighting and background contrast. You can Google “what color is the dress” and make up your own mind. This discussion wouldn’t be complete without returning to that glory of the skies, the rainbow. You know the old saying, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound? It’s a trick question. No it does not, due to the definition of sound: ‘the sensation perceived by the sense of hearing.’ The reason we see a rainbow is that our eyes are receiving the scattered light waves. If there is no one looking, there is no rainbow. And that means everybody sees their own individual rainbow, which is really neat. But there’s something even better. The iris of the eye — what makes blue, brown, or hazel eyes — expands or contracts to control the amount of light entering the eye and reaching the retina, where all those rods and cones are located. And the Greek goddess of the rainbow was named Iris.