21 March 2017

The ancient Greeks had no word for "blue"

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze.

It gets stranger. Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow. Xenophanes, another philosopher, described the rainbow as having but three bands of color: porphyra (dark purple), khloros, and erythros (red).

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky).
Further discussion in an interesting column at the Clarkesworld sci-fi e-magazine.

With a tip of the blogging cap to the elves at No Such Thing as a Fish for mentioning this in a recent podcast.


  1. I've seen this info before. It seems very strange to me.

  2. The Grateful Dead song "Scarlet Begonias" has the line: "The sky was yellow and the sun was blue".

    1. That may have other causes than linguistic ones. ;)

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Color_Terms:_Their_Universality_and_Evolution

    There are many studies in linguistics on color terms in various languages. The landmark study, Berlin and Kay (1969), showed that many languages have only two color terms: dark and light. If a language has a third color term, it is red. The fourth and fifth color terms a language would have are green and yellow. Only if a language has six color terms will it normally have a word for blue.

    This does not mean that people can't see the full spectrum of colors. It just means that their words for colors apply to a larger region of the spectrum than languages with more color words. An example would be that in English, we only have one "basic" word for blue, but Russian has two, for dark blue and light blue. That doesn't mean English speakers can't see the difference between the two colors, but that we think of them as the same color category.

  4. The Vikings by contrast did not have a distinct word for black or blue. The word used for Africans was blámaðr, or blue man. The world was replaced in late middle ages by moor.


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