Does our ability to see colours depend on the words we use for them? It’s a question with a rich historyby Jonathan Rée / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Homer and his guide (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World By Guy Deutscher (Heinemann, £20)
In 1858, long before he became the Grand Old Man of British politics, William Gladstone published a three-volume study of Homer and the Homeric age. In those days the fact that an MP could produce a substantial work of classical scholarship did not strike anyone as surprising. But Gladstone managed to set off a flare of controversy with his concluding speculations about what you might call the “mentality” of the ancient Greeks. Those who believed in cultural progress were pleased with his suggestion, based on Homer’s use of numbers, that the level of mathematical ability amongst the founders of western civilisation was “below that of contemporary schoolchildren.” But nearly everyone was disconcerted by a long chapter on “Homer’s Perception and Use of Colour,” which made a parallel case for the inferiority of the ancient experience of the visible world.
Anyone who has tried to imagine a “wine-dark sea” will have had some doubts about Homer’s sense of colour, but Gladstone took the argument much further. After compiling an inventory of the visual vocabulary of the Odyssey and the Iliad, he suggested that the Greeks of Homer’s time could not see any difference between green and yellow and that they regarded blue not as a distinct colour but as a darker shade of brown. Unlike modern schoolchildren, moreover, the heroic Greeks could not even name the seven colours of the rainbow. They suffered, to use a faddish new expression, from “colour-blindness,” and their world picture was not so much an oil painting as a faintly tinted monochrome.
Gladstone’s assumption that everyday experience was subject to evolution over time was not in itself controversial; indeed it had become commonplace since John Locke set out his theory of human understanding nearly 200 years before. According to Locke, the “ideas” with which we frame most of our experience—“complex” ideas of particular things like trees and people, and “abstract” ideas of qualities like humanity or rationality—were arbitrary rather than absolute. They were not discovered in nature fully formed, but constructed by the understanding through a laborious process of refining and compounding the crude materials delivered to it by the inner and outer senses.
Once the understanding had finished work on its artificial ideas, these ideas could be fixed in verbal formulas…