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: 

Dis­cov­er the Cyanome­ter, the Device Invent­ed in 1789 Just to Mea­sure the Blue­ness of the Sky

YIn­Mn Blue, the First Shade of Blue Dis­cov­ered in 200 Years, Is Now Avail­able for Artists

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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