Posted: Mar 16, 2016 9:27 am
by don't get me started
Splitting off from the ‘colour’ thread in the Philosophy forum, I thought that the linguistic aspect of colour might be worth a look.
There are a number of different articles and books that deal with colour as a linguistic/ cultural phenomenon.
I found ‘Through the language glass’ by Guy Deutcher
to have a good account of the physiology of human colour perception and a wideranging discussion on the way different languages chop up the colour spectrum. (For example, Russian has two different words for blue: синий for dark or navy blue, and голубой for light blue/sky blue).
In Japan, people describe the signal for ‘go’ in traffic lights as 青(aoi= Blue) not 緑 (Midori = green), even though to my mind the colour is more green than blue.

Deutcher also describes the case of colour in Homer, as put forward by Gladstone, who besides being Prime Minister, was something of a Homer nut. He noticed the lack of colour terms in the Iliad and Odyssey ( he was reading it in the original, not a translation.) He also noticed that Homer used strange circumlocutions such as ‘wine dark sea’ but never ‘blue sea’. This theme is taken up by Harry Ritchie in ‘English for the Natives’.

On page 106 he states:

“…Homer never mentions the colour of the bright blue Mediterranean sky. And it’s not just blue that is missing in Homer, he does occasionally use words that would later denote yellow and green, but very, very confusingly.
It’s not just Homer. There is no blue in the Old Testament (composed mainly from the sixth to third centuries BC) or the Indian Vedic Epics (composed between 1,500 and 500 BC.) And, like Homer, who could describe honey as green, the Bible manages to come up with green gold.
It seems that in those BC years ancient Greek, Biblical, Hebrew and the Sanskrit of the Vedic epics only had three definite colours- black white and red. Yellow was next to appear, then green, and blue was the last of the primary colours to be specified.
[ ]
….Of the 119 languages analysed by the World Color Survey, 10 still had just three natural colour categories- black, white and red or occasionally a red/ yellow composite. [ ] just under half the languages surveyed had at most five colour categories- usually black, white, red, yellow and one grueish, bleenish word for green and blue. English belongs to the 10 percent of languages that have eleven colour categories- black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, grey, orange and pink.” (pp. 106-107)

It is argued that it is not the case that prehistoric peoples had different sensory equipment to us moderns, but that they simply did not attend to the categories that closely and made do with ‘Grue like the sky, not grue like fresh foliage’ type constructions in cases of specificity.
It is also suggested by Deutcher that colour terms emerged in order of dyeing technology, red being one of the easiest dyes to make, and thus emerging early, and blue being the most difficult, and thus emerging later. (I’d need some convincing of this TBH, but I’m open to the concept.)

Whatever the case, it’s a fascinating aspect of the cultural/ linguistic framing of the external world. And that is before we even consider the verbs of vision (See, look and watch in English, which, as any EFL teacher will tell you, are among the difficult words to define, as when students make errors such as ‘Yesterday I looked a movie’ or ‘I see out of the window.’ and then they ask you why it's wrong)