The Sciences

The Color Blue is Actually a Relatively Recent Hue to Humans

Dive into humanity’s surprisingly short history with the color blue, and discover whether that history is a result of our vision or our vocabulary.

By Max BennettMay 27, 2024 8:00 AM
White Beach in Ithaca Island, Greece
Despite the blue seas and skies of Greece, the ancient Greeks lacked a word for "blue." (Credit: hydra viridis)


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Why so blue? This most calming color has woven itself into the fabric of our language, and it’s hard to imagine a world without the azure hue of the ocean or sky. However, there’s some evidence to suggest that the people of the past didn’t see the same world that we do, or, at least, didn’t describe it in the same way.

Historical records in various languages, from ancient Greek to ancient Hebrew, make no explicit references to blue, despite having terms for other hues like black and red. Its absence from these records suggest that the color may have simply come out of the blue.

Read More: The Meaning of Colors

Off-Color Cultures

In the 1850s, British scholar and soon-to-be Prime Minister William Gladstone became one of the first to claim that ancient works were written in a blue-less era. Perhaps the most infamous instance of this omission was in Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient Greek poem cataloging the trials and tribulations of mortal humans in a world of gods and myth.

Despite being over 12,000 lines long, the epic makes no attempt to reference the color blue. Instead, the vast expanses of ocean the characters cross are described as “wine-like.” Even the sky, notorious for being blue, is likened to “copper” and “iron” when directly translated. Were the ancient Greeks simply incapable of perceiving all the colors we know today?

If so, they may not have been alone. Emboldened by Gladstone’s postulation, scholars have also noted a profound lack of “blue-ness” in Chinese and Icelandic stories, the earliest Hebrew versions of the Bible, and complex Hindu Vedic hymns. Some groups today, like the indigenous Himba people of Namibia, don’t even have a separate term for blue. Linguistically, it is indistinguishable from green.

Read More: How Much Color Do We Really See?

Certain Cultures Can't See Blue

When tested with colored tiles in a study in 2006, indigenous Himba individuals had trouble recognizing blue as a distinct color. But on the flip side, they had no trouble distinguishing between subtly different shades of green that Westerners struggled to distinguish, and did so with lightening speed. Most strikingly, the study also showed that the Himba language has various words for green that English does not.

Published in Progress in Colour Studies, the study offers insight into a fascinating psychological theory: Language influences how we see the world, and vice versa. While it’s unlikely that the ancient Greeks were incapable of seeing the blue ocean we see today, they may have been less likely to notice its color, for they simply had no words to describe it.

Read More: How Absolute Space and Sense of Direction Affect Different Languages

Why Is Blue a Forgotten Shade?

Following in Gladstone’s footsteps, a German philosopher named Lazarus Geiger devised a linguistic color hierarchy. After studying countless ancient and modern texts from across the globe, he concluded that terms describing white and black will always arise first in language, for they are the most easily understood concepts. After that comes words for red, due to its instinctual connections with blood and survival. Finally, after all other major colors get their own names, comes blue.

Ultimately, it seems that blue’s relative absence in the world’s palette put it a bit lower on the linguistic to-do list for many civilizations. In fact, the only ancient people who had a long-standing term for blue were the ancient Egyptians, who were known for using a blue mineral called lapis lazuli in much of their art.

Elsewhere, blue minerals were difficult to acquire, and remained so in the Middle Ages. In medieval Europe, for instance, blue pigments made of lapis lazuli were especially expensive, and were thus reserved for the finest manuscripts.

Read More: How Language Shapes Our Understanding of Reality

Things in Nature

Compared to light and shadow, or even the crimson hue of our bodies’ blood, blue is a rare color in nature. Few plants or animals are truly blue. Even so-called blue jays and blue morpho butterflies don’t actually have any blue pigments; rather, their feathers and wing scales scatter and reflect light in just the right way to create the illusion of true color, like a prism. The only pigment they do have is brown melanin.

Even plants, some of nature’s masters of chemistry, haven’t figured out a way to make a truly blue pigment. Instead, bushes like blueberries predominantly use red anthocyanin to color their fruits. According to a 2024 paper published in Science Advances, these plant parts actually get their blue from the wax they secrete, which scatters light similarly to the aforementioned bird feathers.

Light scattering is also why the sky appears blue during the day. As white light, composed of all visible wavelengths of light, enters the atmosphere, air molecules preferentially scatter the waves with the shortest, highest-energy wavelengths, namely blue and violet light.

Thanks to this Rayleigh scattering (which also gives blue eyes their characteristic hue), we see a beam of scattered photons that we interpret as blue while the rest of the rainbow cruises along. Dawn and dusk, on the other hand, look distinctly un-blue due to the incoming angle of the sun’s rays, which results in blue light being scattered before reaching our eyes.

While water itself is clear, it attains a blue hue in large volumes. That’s because oceans, lakes, and pools absorb all the red light that hits them when they are deep enough, only reflecting back blue. As such, blue’s prominence in the world is surprisingly tenuous, resting on the scattering of light rather than true coloration. With that in mind, it’s no wonder why the color comes last in so many languages.

Read More: Your Eye Color, Explained

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