Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Could the ancients see blue?

Could our ancestors see blue? Ancient people didn't perceive the colour because they didn't have a word for it, say scientists
  • Studies say language shapes what we see by making us focus on objects
  • Blue doesn't appear at all in Greek stories and other ancient written texts
  • As a result, scientists believe ancient civilisations didn't notice the colour
  • Egyptians - who were the only culture that could produce blue dyes - were the first civilisation to have a word for the colour blue in 2500 BC
  • The Himba people in Namibia do not have a word for blue and tests have shown they have difficulty distinguishing between green and blue (Ellie Zolfagharifard, The Daily Mail)
The blue and black (or gold and white) dress that sweeped the internet last week revealed just how differently two people can see the world.

But it's not just about lighting conditions or optical illusions - evidence is mounting that until we have a way to describe something, we may not see its there.

Ancient languages, for instance, didn't have a word for blue and scientists believe as a result our ancestors didn't notice the colour even existed.


It wasn't just the Greeks. Blue also doesn't appear in the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible, according to a German philologist named Lazarus Geiger.


This story, which I have noted before, is making the rounds and the Mail's coverage is as good a place to find it as any. For the blue-black/white-gold dress, see here. (I see white-gold.)

In principle it makes sense that people might not be able to distinguish a color if their language didn't have a word for it. That said, I am not persuaded that ancient Hebrew did not have a word for blue. Ancient garments dyed with the tekhelet dye look to me to be in shades of blue, although I'm only looking at photos and the tones may be more bluish-purple. But there also is the Hebrew word sappir, which is a kind of gem, either sapphire or lapis lazuli, both of which we would call blue. This seems to me to be good evidence that the ancient Israelites could see something like our color blue.