Pondering the Wine Dark Sea

The incipit of a review of Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass … looks interesting:

This tale begins with a Liberal leader and his innovative exploration of the colour blue. Not Nick Clegg and the Tories, but William Gladstone and his concern about Homer’s use of colour in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Gladstone was the first prominent intellectual to notice something awry with the Greek poet’s sense of colour. Homer never described the sky as blue. In fact, Homer barely used colour terms at all and when he did they were just peculiar. The sea was “wine-looking”. Oxen were also “wine-looking”. And, to Gladstone, the sea and oxen were never of the same colour. His explanation was that the Ancient Greeks had not developed a colour sense, and instead saw the world in terms of black and white with only a dash of red.

Guy Deutscher’s interest in the Homeric eye is less about evolution or optics than it is linguistic. Can we see something for which we have no word? Yes. The Greeks were able to distinguish shades of blue just as vividly as we can now, despite lacking a specific vocabulary for them. Yet, writes Deutscher, even though Gladstone was wrong about the Greeks’ sense of perception, his hunch about the emergence of colour words was “so sharp and far-sighted that much of what he wrote . . . can hardly be bettered today”.

It turned out that it wasn’t just the Ancient Greeks who never said the sky was blue. None of the ancient languages had a proper word for blue. What we now call blue was once subsumed by older words for black or for green. (In fact, this is why in Japan green lights are actually a bluer shade of green than in the rest of the world. The word used for the green of traffic lights is ao, which used to mean “green and blue” but now means blue. Rather than change the word, they changed the colour.)

… I’m trying to recall ‘wine looking’ oxen … I’m also wondering about that phrase “black and white with only a dash of red” … kind of sounds like ‘300’.

2 thoughts on “Pondering the Wine Dark Sea

  1. There’s a Rabbinic account — Talmud I think — about (I think) defining morning which talks about the shade of blue needed, & it lists several “similar”-colored things, rather an odd list if I recall.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s