Why Most Ancient Civilizations Had No Word for the Color Blue

In an old Zen story, two monks argue over whether a flag is waving or whether it’s the wind that waves. Their teacher strikes them both dumb, saying, “It is your mind that moves.” The centuries-old koan illustrates a point Zen masters — and later philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists — have all emphasized at one time or another: human experience happens in the mind, but we share reality through language and culture, and these in turn set the terms for how we perceive what we experience.

Such observations bring us to another koan-like question: if a language lacks a word for something like the color blue, can the thing be said to exist in the speaker’s mind? We can dispense with the idea that there’s a color blue “out there” in the world. Color is a collaboration between light, the eye, the optic nerve, and the visual cortex. And yet, claims Maria Michela Sassi, professor of ancient philosophy at Pisa University, “every culture has its own way of naming and categorizing colours.”

The most famous example comes from the ancient Greeks. Since the 18th century, scholars have pointed out that in the thousands of words in the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer never once describes anything — sea, sky, you name it — as blue. It wasn’t only the Greeks who didn’t see blue, or didn’t see it as we do, Sassi writes:

There is a specific Greek chromatic culture, just as there is an Egyptian one, an Indian one, a European one, and the like, each of them being reflected in a vocabulary that has its own peculiarity, and not to be measured only by the scientific meter of the Newtonian paradigm.

It was once thought cultural color differences had to do with stages of evolutionary development — that more “primitive” peoples had a less developed biological visual sense. But differences in color perception are “not due to varying anatomical structures of the human eye,” writes Sassi, “but to the fact that different ocular areas are stimulated, which triggers different emotional responses, all according to different cultural contexts.”

As the AsapSCIENCE video above explains, the evidence of ancient Greek literature and philosophy shows that since blue was not part of Homer and his readers’ shared vocabulary (yellow and green do not appear either), it may not have been part of their perceptual experience, either. The spread of blue ink across the world as a relatively recent phenomenon has to do with its availability. “If you think about it,” writes Business Insider’s Kevin Loria, “blue doesn’t appear much in nature — there aren’t blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations.”

The color blue took hold in modern times with the development of substances that could act as blue pigment, like Prussian Blue, invented in Berlin, manufactured in China and exported to Japan in the 19th century. “The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.” Color is not only cultural, it is also technological. But first, perhaps, it could be a linguistic phenomenon.

One modern researcher, Jules Davidoff, found this to be true in experiments with a Namibian people whose language makes no distinction between blue and green (but names many finer shades of green than English does). “Davidoff says that without a word for a colour,” Loria writes, “without a way of identifying it as different, it’s much harder for us to notice what’s unique about it.” Unless we’re color blind, we all “see” the same things when we look at the world because of the basic biology of human eyes and brains. But whether certain colors appear, it seems, has to do less with what we see than with what we’re already primed to expect.

Related Content: 

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The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai: An Introduction to the Iconic Japanese Woodblock Print in 17 Minutes

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (25)
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  • Mark M. says:

    “…blue doesn’t appear much in nature…”

    Well, except for the sky. Which is half the visible world.

  • Michael says:

    “…blue doesn’t appear much in nature…”?

    Sky. Surely Greek folks looked up now and again. Perhaps Lou was so prevalent that they simply took it for granted.

  • ASHOK KUMAR says:

    1. No name for Blue color in most cultures !
    At least for India it is NOT True.
    All Indian languages have words for Blue . The most popular name for Blue is “neel”, an ancient Sanskrit word. Blue clothes were called ” neelambar “. Thereare beautiful poetic descriptions of blue flowers, sky etc. There is even a mountain in South India named ” Neelagiri. In modern Hindi it is ‘neela’.

    Another Sa word is ” Shyam ” , Blue-black , related to Cyan from Greek.

    2. Blue doesn’t appear in nature! Probably this writer has not seen beautiful blue flowers of Linseed
    (Flaxseed ).

  • marco says:

    the ancient mayans named the blue color ch’òoj

  • Paul Salazar says:

    And how about cerulean, as in cerulean blue? It is rooted from the Latin caeruleus, meaning blue, dark blue or blue-green.

  • Mikalus Luciano says:

    ᏌᎪᏂᎨ “sagonige” blue
    ᏣᎳᎩ “tla la gi” Cherokee

  • Cimetta Design, Inc. says:

    Blue is the toughest to get right. The Color #Blue or PMS Blue #282 In the Graphic Design World and same in Print makes things difficult.
    (PMS = The Pantone Color Matching System is largely a standardized color reproduction system across the BIG BLUE Ball we call earth.) One must Color Match Blue in most cases. It is and always has been the most difficult color to reproduce at close specifics. Hence getting ink on paper. Because of too many variables. I have had to “eat” a few in my long career. Just saying… Things ya never know till you know.

  • Paul Guinan says:

    All Mesoamerican cultures had words for blue. Not only that, but several versions of the word blue depending how much yellow or red was in them. So, that’s half the planet’s “ancient civilizations.”

    Also, Ancient Greece, Rome, and India had multiple names for blue.

    I can only imagine this article is either totally ignorant, or deliberately fraudulent. Whatever the case, it should be taken down.

  • Sylvia Thompson says:

    Blue does indeed in nature. There are blue birds and butterflies, blue footed boobies, and lots of blue flowers, many of which are in my garden.

  • Jay says:

    My grass is blue…

  • Suzanne James says:

    In Homer’s writings the stories are set in a natural environment that is dominated by the colour blue! All that sea…And sky. Blue birds, fish and wildflowers are things too. If something is so prevalent, why bother to describe it? It’s also possible that blue/green colour blindness was common.

  • Lynton cox says:

    Prime Ministe Wm Gladstone was the first to surmise this idea. People took little notice at the time since they were more prepared to believe new fangled ideas like they perhaps were colour blind

  • Brannon says:

    Thank you Paul. You said it perfectly. These days as if war has been declared on reality. Throwing crap out there seeing what sticks?

    The fact is color blue is at the core of many ancient saved traditions. The most esoteric secret Sioux name for God is ‘To’ meaning Blue. Koke Mongke Tengri Mongol name of God Koke means Blue. Just to name a few.

  • K9T says:

    > “If you think about it,” writes Business Insider’s Kevin Loria, “blue doesn’t appear much in nature — there aren’t blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations.”

    Except for, you know… the sky. Or blue oceans (looks very blue because of the angles and refracting light), or blue jays, or magpies…

    This idea holds no “water” (see what I did there?); blue is EVERYWHERE in nature.

    The idea that no languages incorporated “blue” is also patently false. Japanese has “ao” which has meant blue (and green) for ages. The word “aozora” (blue sky) is a very poetic and meaningful word in Japanese poetry and art. In fact, Japanese never had a separate “green” color until the Heian Period (9th century CE), but they always had blue:


    Since Japanese written language was imported from China, it stands to reason that the kanji for blue: 青 also existed in China for ages.

  • Jane M. Teague-Urbach says:

    This has got to be the most nonsensical article I’ve ever read in Open Culture. First, Anthropologists have discussed the cultural contexts of color for years..in fact, it was a driving passion of one of the first American Anthropologists, Franz Boaz. That concept is not the problem in this article. That the author expresses it as a new concept is problematical. But the lack of factual evidence for “missing words” in many languages is pure laziness. The colors may exist in physical light waves, etc, but culture changes the description and perhaps the way the color is perceived, described and affects emotions and thoughts.
    However, the statement “If you think about it,” writes Business Insider’s Kevin Loria, “blue doesn’t appear much in nature — there aren’t blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations.” As other commenters have pointed out….Blue is the color of the sky, some kinds of water at certain times of day, feathers on birds..the list goes on and on. It’s simply a ludicrous statement.
    It’s a ludicrous article. If you want to keep me as a subscriber, you will need to “vet” your articles a bit better.

  • George says:

    @Jane M. Teague-Urbach :
    A lot of bullshit rational people can find in your comment , based on “telephone charade” or “high hierarchy” of “expertise” from Kevin Loria !
    For all those open minded readers check it out :
    -” Why Is Blue So Rare In Nature?” (It’s Okay To Be Smart) ;
    -“Blue Is Pretty Special: How Nature Gets the Blues” (SciShow);
    -“Testing The First Blue Pigment In Over 200 years…”

  • Julie Pongrac says:

    The Japanese have Indigo that is a blue that is revered. The French also have noble blue which is derived from the indigo pigment from woad. An art history lesson is in order here.

  • Mike says:

    Wait, why was my comment removed due to moderation???? What a crock! It wasn’t rude or anything!

    All I said was that Japanese have had “ao” for a long time, and that although they didn’t have a separate green (“midori”) until Heian (9th century), they’ve always had blue.

    Why did this not pass moderation? Trying to suppress criticism and commentary?

  • Mike says:

    I had also mentioned that, of course, water is blue, the sky is blue, but I also mentioned blue jays and magpies, both of which have blue feathers (and are not recent mutations based on human experiments, at least AFAIK) :)

    I also mentioned that the kanji for ao: 青 came originally from China, so Chinese must have also had blue for a really long time.

  • Andrew says:

    Some Australian Aboriginal languages do not differentiate between green and blue. This is particularly true of the sea which changes colour throughout the year.

  • Pat says:

    The article’s purpose may have been to generate a discussion on the word Blue. It seems to have worked if that is the case. I learned a great deal from these responses.

  • Pavel Green says:

    Don’t forget Maya blue.

  • Alex says:

    Homer, was most likely blind

  • Bela says:

    Right? Oh and the blue bird.

  • Kasia says:

    I can’t fathom these people saying blue doesn’t appear in nature. What about all the blue flowers and birds?

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