For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.
A recent episode of Radiolab centered on questions about colors. It profiled a British man who, in the 1800s, noticed that neither The Odyssey nor The Iliad included any references to the color blue. In fact, it turns out that, as languages evolve words for color, blue is always last. Red is always first. This is the case in every language ever studied.
Scholars theorize that this is because red is very common in nature, but blue is extremely rare. The flowers we think of as blue, for example, are usually more violet than blue; very few foods are blue. Most of the blue we see today is part of artificial colors produced by humans through manufacturing processes. So, blue is the last color to be noticed and named.
An exception to the rarity of blue in nature, of course — one that might undermine this theory — is the sky. The sky is blue, right?
Well, it turns out that seeing blue when we look up is dependent on already knowing that the sky is blue. To illustrate, the hosts of Radiolab interviewed a linguist named Guy Deutscher who did a little experiment on his daughter, Alma. Deutscher taught her all the colors, including blue, in the typical way: pointing to objects and asking what color they were. In the typical way, Alma mastered her colors quite easily.
But Deutscher and his wife avoided ever telling Alma that the sky was blue. Then, one day, he pointed to a clear sky and asked her, “What color is that?”
Alma, at first, was puzzled. To Alma, the sky was a void, not an object with properties like color. It was nothing. There simply wasn’t a “that” there at all. She had no answer. The idea that the sky is a thing at all, then, is not immediately obvious.
Deutscher kept asking on “sky blue” days and one day she answered: the sky was white. White was her answer for some time and she only later suggested that maybe it was blue. Then blue and white took turns for a while, and she finally settled on blue.
The story is a wonderful example of the role of culture in shaping perception. Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction. There are other examples of this phenomenon. What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany. Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.
So, next time you look into the sky, ask yourself what you might see if you didn’t see blue.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Christina — July 30, 2012
This is a fantastic post! The subjectivity of colours is so fascinating to me! In the Great Lakes region, the First Nations people saw blue as black. This would be in the context of wampum beads which are blue and white. The white symbolize the sky and purity. The blue ones the water and the underwater panther (a not very friendly being).
Colours are not as clear cut as we like to assume. Perhaps that is why people get into those arguments about whether this or that colour is blue or green: each person has a different idea of where the line is drawn between one colour and another
zee — July 30, 2012
Meh. While I agree that there's a lot of discussion to be had about how people perceive colours, this particular example seems like a bit of a stretch. On some days, the sky IS white, but honestly, as someone who watches the sky every day - it's blue.
The red onions example, too, is not really a thing - the difference in the name (Blaukraut/Rotkohl) is because the different ways of cooking it actually gives a different colour to each.
Heliconia — July 30, 2012
Since you mentioned the Odyssey and Iliad, let's not forget Homer's bizarre "wine-dark sea": http://www.nytimes.com/1983/12/20/science/homer-s-sea-wine-dark.html
Saba — July 30, 2012
Well, uh, there is this thing called Rayleigh scatter that results in us seeing the sky as blue. Names will vary, and the cultural significance of different colors could easily influence how many are distinguished/named, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the color of the sky not actually being blue, which is a quantifiable phenomenon.
Will Robertson — July 30, 2012
Here's an awesome video on YouTube that looks at the effect of language/culture on color perception. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b71rT9fU-I
Lisa G — July 30, 2012
I listened to that podcast as well and really enjoyed it. Actually, red isn't always first. Cultures that have any color words generally have black and white (or light/dark) first, then red. I know some people will say "white and black aren't colors," but I think in the case of color words we can consider them colors.
Greta — July 30, 2012
Lisa, you should check out this amazing documentary, on the subject: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013c8tb
RexSchrader — July 30, 2012
A similar observation about the color of 'gators:
Culturally, in the US, they are green, but in reality they are black, or dark brown.
Chris — July 30, 2012
Anyone notice the chemtrails?
Ben Ostrowsky — July 30, 2012
Blue is always last? Hmm. So that means we mustn't have developed that word until after we had started using fuchsia as a color term... and the scientist for whom fuchsia is named wasn't even alive until the 1500s CE. Weiiiiird.
MJArmstrong — July 30, 2012
I always wondered about "the wine dark seas."
Reiko Korin — July 30, 2012
As a linguist, I'm disappointed that the author didn't check her references well. Blue is not last in any sense. Check Berlin and Kay 1969 for the full order.
ctl — July 30, 2012
I've seen the sky turn every colour, but usually it is white.
Cats and dogs with diluted black pigment are called blue, though they are a shade of grey, and when brown coats are diluted, they are called lilac, though they are a mushroom colour.
Guest — July 31, 2012
Except the sky really is blue, it is called Rayleigh Scattering. A young girl may not notice, very smart people may not notice either, but it is not simply a cultural construct.
Vadim McNab — July 31, 2012
Great more of these hackneyed constructionist posts.
Blue is blue: 606–668 and THz
Frequency 450–495 nm Wavelength.
How neat that someone can call blue yaght or zuzusax or some other thing. But there is a measurable blue.
But this involves real science so, yeah.
pduggie — July 31, 2012
The hebrew bible seems to have identified the color of the sky/firmament as the same as the color of lapis lazuli.
Lunad — July 31, 2012
Whenever the subject of color comes up, I always think of the people of Sabarl island in Oceania, who, rather than distinguishing colors by hue, distinguish them by how shiny or matte the object is. Thus a shiny green leaf might be the same color as a shiny red apple, but a matte green leaf is a different color.
Christian Clarkson — July 31, 2012
I realise that William Gladstone is better-known for his four separate terms as British Prime Minister than his work on Homer, but I still feel he deserves more credit than being named 'a british man'! Frankly, as one of the most influential politicians in the UK's history he's THE British Man :)
Patti — August 1, 2012
The sky looks blue as much as whatever marker for blue he gave his daughter looked blue.
People have commented about Rayleigh scattering, but for those who are
not familiar with it, here is an (exceedingly brief) explanation.
As the white light from the sun travels through the atmosphere (on a clear day, when the sky appears blue) it hits dust and water molecules and the shorter light wavelengths (towards the violet and blue end of the spectrum) scatter throughout the sky. The rays coming directly from the sun appear yellow to white because at that end of the spectrum the longer wavelength light can travel relatively straight. At sunset the sun appears red because the distance the light travels is longer (draw it for yourself) and there is more scattering (causing the sky to appear pink). A rainbow splits the white light from the sun into all the colours of the spectrum.
While the little girl may have not conceptualised empty space as a thing, if she had been given a photograph of the sky and told to identify the colour on the paper, I would be surprised if she did not call it blue. I would like to ask the girl more questions - like can she identify the rainbow as an object in space (like the sky is seen as an object in space, or what colour the night sky is (black being void of light), also what colour did she identify the ocean as (on similar clear days) - since the colour of the ocean is a reflection of the sky - so thus it is blue. While the language and markers may be socially constructed (for the sake of physics at the very least), comparatively they are the same. So the sky is blue as much as a blue eyed person's eyes are blue (for lack of a better natural example). Also, flora in many areas is blue - especially heathers.
Luc Prévost — August 2, 2012
Tidbit: Bleue is also, historically, the most difficult color pigment to produce.
Alex — August 2, 2012
I didn't listen to the podcast yet, but from what I can gather, the issue is not about the child's ability to recognize the color blue. Everyone here keeps arguing over the ability to objectively identify/see color, when the whole point seems to be about something else entirely. The child didn't understand the sky to be a tangible object, capable of even having a color. Wade writes, 'To Alma, the sky was a void, not an object with properties like color.
It was nothing. There simply wasn’t a “that” there at all. She had no
answer. The idea that the sky is a thing at all, then, is not
immediately obvious.' To the girl, the sky was an abstract concept or entity.
Example: God - In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the image of "God" is anthropomorphised, and of the male gender. Some people in other religious/spiritual contexts might have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea that "God" could even have a gender. There are other examples I'm sure, but right now, only this one comes to mind...
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ThreeOranges — August 7, 2012
Intriguing, but a thing one dude did with his kid isn't exactly scientific.
Cove — August 7, 2012
It isn't that the sky is void, but that the sky is ubiquitous. When you "point" at the sky, YOU think "sky" because your brain has already predetermined the extent of your point; to ALMA, you might as well be hallucinating, trying to encompass the Entirety of Above on the tip of your finger. With a flower, unless you shove Alma's face right into it, the human eye doesn't have the resolution to pick out color gradations, so a single pointed-out bloom can be color-defined; but with the wild yonder (and the wine-dark sea, and the same-river-twice, and the chaos of nyx, and the "invisible" air), the CONCEPT ITSELF is Alma's problem, since the human eye cannot even see it all at once, much less pick out a particular spot of generality to color-name. It isn't that the sky isn't "a thing," it's that the question itself is intentionally rigged to trick her and she's not that stupid--"you or your lying eyes" and so forth.
As for the color blue itself, I would hazard that it's the one-of-the/last named colors because it is the "safest" color. Blue things generally don't hurt us, so we don't worry about spotting and differentiating them. The sky doesn't fall on our heads. And for those blues that do pose danger--like drowning water--the defining characteristic isn't their visibility but their tactility: water becomes a problem when it TOUCHES us, not when we SEE it.
Hatfield — August 7, 2012
And that funny runny stuff we see, especially in Greece...oh, it's called the ocean.
Avery — August 7, 2012
I'd like to recommend a wonderful, short book on the color blue and a philosophy of its associated feelings, On Being Blue by William H. Gass.
Anon — December 30, 2012
I don't know that blue is always last to be named. In Japanese, the word 青 (ao) is used as blue in modern Japanese, but use to also encompass shades of green. For green the word 緑 (midori) is now used, but you still see ao used for some terms that we would call green in English (unripened plum would be aoumo not midoriumo, traffic lights have aoshingou, etc). I believe Mandarin has some similar overlap.
leeson — November 14, 2013
Lots of comments, but did anyone even listen to the podcast?
BTW rayleigh scattering isn't really the point. The sky is actually a violet that is just outside the visible light spectrum, but that's not really the point either.
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Jane — April 30, 2020
Guy Deutscher. He made a fool of himself recently. See comments here:
Bob — June 6, 2021
Having taught color theory and painting at several major Universities and Art Schools for forty years and having painted from direct observation of nature nearly everyday of my life since the age of 15. I can tell you that even most 'artists' let alone the average persons do not see any of the subtle differences between the colors before them. This inability to see is the result of the lack of knowledge and study. It should be well known that what people do not know they will still profess to know and will even argue about it. In teaching color theory I have my students work with what I would call a very limited color palette of 1,200 colors. They are derived from the 12-part color circle and the Munsell Color Sphere. Each color can be distinguished by its' three properties; hue, value and intensity. There are 12 hues (colors) to the 'very basic' color circle. They are yellow, yellow orange, orange, red-orange, red, red violet, violet, blue violet, blue, blue green, green and yellow-green. Any person can easily distinguish these hues from one another, unless they have some eye issues that cause a deficiency called color blindness. Personally, I can easily distinguish between 25 different hues. Now add to that 10 different intensities of each hue. Intensity refers to the degree of saturation or greyness to purity of each color. We now have 120 colors that can easily be distinguished from one another or in my case 250 colors, Now let us multiply that by ten different values. This arena becomes more difficult as yellow being an extremely light-valued color to begin with, has a much more limited value range; whereas violet the darkest hue has a much broader value range between light and dark. However, let's average and say 10 distinct values for each hue. With this method anyone can learn to distinguish between 1,200 colors with full agreement and accuracy. With this same method I can easily distinguish between 2,500 colors with accuracy, this is my basic palette colors. Colors associated with object names such as sky blue, or apple red, flesh or apricot are completely subjective. The sky cannot be considered blue. It is a different color everyday in every part of the sky and subject to the positioning of the suns' rays passing through the atmosphere. Humidity, temperature, amount of particles in the air all have an effect on the color we see. Full spectrum daylight does mean that the sky can be considered as white light. Compared to the very warm spectrum of candle light and most light bulbs, outdoor light appears quite blue to us. Blue is a rather scarce color in natural objects, hence the color blue did not exist in the vocabulary of many early civilizations. Based upon all my experiences people do have a very subjective reading or perception of color and it is very, very limited, because it is based upon the naming of colors in association with objects rather than light. Truth is we don't see the color of objects we only see the light reflecting off their surface(s). It is well known that objects absorb certain light frequencies and what we see as color are the frequencies that are not absorbed. Furthermore what seems to never be taken into account is how multiple light sources and reflected light from other surfaces modify or change the make up or character of observed colors. A red, shiny, apple will appear to be different in color, based upon its location and proximity to other different colored objects and are subject to various light sources. In actuality as many as 12 distinctly different hues can be present in that one apple, not just red. People say it is red because they identify it with a predominant local color, which over time becomes a preconception. That process of identification of color trumps all other seeing and they call it red , which has nothing to do with seeing. Their perception is no longer participating it has been replaced by thought. This is the way people see not by perception but by thought. Another aspect is what people see in association with color photography. Color photography is also very limited in the color range it is able to reproduce, in great part due to the printing process. That is why Kodachrome slide film was much better at rendering color than any print film has ever been. It would take too long to explain the deficiencies of color photography in print, but I wanted to at least mention it because people will use it as evidence to say look the apple is red! BTW red is the most difficult color to reproduce in film, just ask any professional photographer. These are some of the reasons why color perception is so subjective and takes people very, very far from any real perception of color. Hardly anyone knows or realizes this. Only after long intensive study would anyone begin to see color as light rather than color as objects. Just look at the color range in paintings by Monet or Cezanne and you will begin to get some idea of color as light and the colors that are actually observed. No one sees that kind of range in color other than those who have made it their life work.
Hans — September 5, 2022
Here in Los Angeles the sky is most definitely brown.
Manny Corpus — April 1, 2023
What an astoundingly ignorant article, based on a single anecdote that doesn't even make the point since Alma (who is a very quirky musical genius) eventually settled on blue.
Manny Corpus — April 1, 2023
"Guy Deutscher. He made a fool of himself recently."
Even if true (and it's totally a matter of opinion) it's completely irrelevant.