The Burden of Color

Things themselves become so burdened with attributes, signs, illusions that they finally lose their own form.

—Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization

A recent episode of Radiolab on color took up one of my favorite lines of thought on language, by way of color (here’s another version of it in relation to wine). Specifically, it notes that the color “blue” does not exist in the earliest periods of most languages, and that colors are sort of sequentially introduced in the history of language. First, black/white, then red, then other colors, and finally, and almost always last: blue.

Guy Deutscher, one of the guests on the program, has a great quote from nineteenth century German philologist Lazarus Geiger discussing ancient sagas in general:

These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. … But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue. (#)

Deutscher speculates that this pattern in language derives from both the dearth of naturally blue objects in the world—which are extremely rare—and, more interestingly, the lack of a need for a color-word until a culture can reliably make that color. Or, the word for blue is useless unless, well, you can put blue to use.

And for people without the color-word for blue, like the Himba of Namibia, the color blue just doesn’t exist … or rather, it exists, but it just doesn’t signify for them. They sort of just don’t notice the difference between, say, blue and green.

And the sky? The episode speculates that its association with the color blue is more cultural than we might think. And any idea that can make me question whether or not the sky is blue—to make me see the very sky differently—is worth a blog post …

The Radiolab episode “Colors”