Does a Color Exist If We Don’t Have a Name For It?
Adam Rogers on the Gap Between Concept and Language
The words people use to describe colors are just as important as the wavelength of light or the physiology of the retina. The way we talk about color is as critical to its manufacture as how we physically make or see it.
Here’s the physics: Scientists can measure light—the length of waves and the energy of photons. The light that human eyes see as “violet” isn’t actually violet until some meat-based computational systems behind the back of your eyes convert it to a neuroelectrical signal. Prior to that, it’s just a wavelength of about 400 nanometers. Oh, but, sorry, it’s also photons—with about three electron-volts of energy. If I tell you about light with a wavelength of 540 nanometers, “yellowish-green,” I can also say those are photons with an energy of 222 kilojoules per mole, a different metric for counting the same thing.
Waves are made of photons, but photons are also made of waves. It’s messed up, but that’s just how things are. The difference isn’t in the math or the science. It’s in the method—and the language.
When people measure the color of artificial light, they use a whole different system of measurement and another vocabulary. It’s “color temperature,” as in, the temperature to which you’d have to heat a theoretical “black body” to get that color, measured in degrees Kelvin. So this is also energy, but by another name. As with a flame or molten metal, blue-white is the hottest, so ghostly electronic flash bulbs come in at 6000 K—yet people describe that light as cool. Incandescent bulbs like the ones that lit the World’s Columbian Exposition and, until very recently, most people’s houses, land between 2700 K and 3000 K, a cool yellowish-white that people counterintuitively call “warm.”
Light and the colors we perceive—or that our technologies can see—can be described in other ways, too, using other terms. The interactions of photons and electrons described by quantum electrodynamics has its own jargon for talking about color; scientists who scrutinize how light interacts with particles and surfaces have their own special terms. They’re all talking about the same thing.The way we talk about color is as critical to its manufacture as how we physically make or see it.
One of the people who kickstarted that idea was the British politician William Ewart Gladstone, who wanted to talk about the colors people don’t talk about. In 1858, ten years before he became prime minister for the first of four terms, Gladstone wrote a three-volume analysis of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and beyond called Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. In it, he famously pointed out that Homer never uses words that might correspond to “orange,” “green,” or “blue” in English. (Homer being blind might’ve had something to do with all this, though Gladstone dismisses that—he’s not even sure “blind” is the right word, and anyway, “blindness did not maim Bards, who neither wrote nor read their compositions,” Gladstone writes.)
In fact, lots of Homeric color is weird. Homer uses a word Gladstone translated as “purple”—purpura—to refer to things as disparate as blood, a dark cloud, ocean waves, clothes, and a rainbow. He describes dawn as “rosy-fingered” even though fingers are never rosy. And don’t get Gladstone started on that “wine-dark sea” that Homer is always going on about. Of the words Homer uses for “wine” when he means a color, Gladstone wrote, one means “dark, but probably without a determinate hue,” and the other “fluctuates between the ideas of flame and smoke, either means tawny, or else refers to light, and not to colour, and bears the sense of sparkling.”
Gladstone concludes that it’s a mess, “hardly reconcilable with the supposition that Homer possessed accurate ideas of colour.” In other words, maybe the ancient Greeks didn’t merely lack the language to describe blue and green. Maybe they didn’t have those words because they literally couldn’t conceive of those colors as Gladstone could.
There’s no physiological reason to think this. Very few humans lack the gene that enables a person to see blue. It doesn’t seem likely that every ancient Greek, man and woman, had this genetic deficiency. And why would the Greeks use blue pigments in their arts and crafts if they couldn’t see them?
More likely, Homer was using Greek color words for things that were meaningful to the Greeks. This is what professors like to call “salience,” which means something like “cultural and personal significance.” The Homeric color term porphureos derives etymologically from the expensive, royal purple dye called Tyrian purple—porphura in Greek—extracted from a certain type of Mediterranean sea snail. It was highly prized in part because it took ten thousand snails to make a gram of dye. Chemically a relative of indigo, it probably ranged from a dark red to a deep blue, with some anoxic blood tones along the way. To the Greeks it was a signifier of wealth, of trade, of empire.
And hey, who’s to say that the ocean Odysseus was looking at was actually blue, anyway? Most people think the color of water reflects the ambient color around it, generally the sky. But the most important thing about the color of water is that its molecular structure—two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, H2O—allows it to form bonds with other water molecules. Each hydrogen atom in a body of water can be bound to two oxygens, not just one, and those hydrogen bonds vibrate at a frequency just specific enough to absorb infrared and red light—reflecting blue. When whitecaps and foam form in the wind or a storm, they scatter ambient light (appearing white) and prevent much of it from penetrating deep enough to make the water blue. It ends up white, gray, black. Wine-dark, even.
What the Greeks really valued about water—about lots of things, possibly—was its quality of “brilliance,” of “shine,” the ability of porphura to make a textile shimmer like silk or velour. That’s why one of Plato’s primary colors was “brilliant and shining.” The Greeks could see the blue; they just didn’t care about it.
In 1879, a novelist and philosopher named Grant Allen tried to put Gladstone’s hypothesis to rest. Allen would go on to pioneer both detective fiction and science fiction, but before that, as part of his early book The Colour-Sense, Allen sent letters to “missionaries, government officials, and other persons working among the most uncivilized races.” Put aside Allen’s racism; the point is, he gave people a list of color questions to ask or answer. How many colors do they distinguish, or have names for? Can they distinguish between blue and green, or between blue and violet? Do they have “mixed” colors like mauve or purple? How many colors do they say are in a rainbow? How many pigments do they use? Do they have names for all of them? Do they have any color names for which they don’t have a pigment?
These are very good questions. And it might only be because of the haphazard, anecdotal way Allen gathered his data that his answers aren’t more famous. In the end, Allen asserted that all the peoples of Europe and Asia saw and spoke of colors pretty much the same way. So too did the indigenous people of North and South America. People from southern Africa could see all the same colors, but often lacked a word for violet. “In one case, a Mozambique had no native word for purple, which is wanting in his own language, but had learnt the name in Dutch, and applied it correctly,” Allen wrote. And then a few pages later: “Even the wretched Andaman Islanders, probably the lowest known specimens of the human race, daub their faces with red and white.”
Gladstone’s hypothesis, in other words, was wrong. People could see colors for which they didn’t have words. The absence of words—“negative evidence of language,” in Allen’s construction—wasn’t evidence of the absence of a concept.
A more recent translation of the Odyssey solves the epic’s negative-language problem by simply making it go away. In her new version, Emily Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, fills Homer’s world with colors. Dawn is still rosy-fingered, but the sky is sometimes bronze, particularly when the Pylians bring black bulls to the beach for sacrifice to blue Poseidon. Ships have red painted prows. The sea is sometimes wine-dark, but also occasionally grayish and sometimes whitening.
That’s because Wilson knows that very few words in ancient Greek have one-to-one modern equivalents. The culture was just too different. Ancient Greek has a word that’s kind of like “wife-woman,” but doesn’t mean spouse or servant, Wilson says. Dmoos, often translated as “slave,” doesn’t have the same connotations of forced lifetime servitude. The same goes for color. “That’s an insoluble problem with translation in general, and it’s a gesture of theoretical naivety to pretend we can get closer to authenticity by using weird English,” Wilson tells me in an email. “I tried on occasion to flag the to-us-surprising ways Homeric Greek deals with color by using some surprising words—making the sea ‘purple’ and ‘indigo’ as well as blue, because of course the Greek term covers them all.”
Allen’s work on color was obscure and ignored by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who came to think much the same way as Gladstone. The idea that a person who didn’t have a word for something couldn’t conceive of that something proved to be extraordinarily sticky. In large measure that’s due to the work of an autodidactic linguist and fire safety inspector named Benjamin Whorf.
Fascinated by the attempts of an early 1800s French mystic named Antoine Fabre d’Olivet to find hidden meanings in the Bible, Whorf picked up the idea that Hebrew letters have deeper, hidden significance than just sounds. In looking for evidence of d’Olivet’s “root-signs” in Hebrew, Whorf prefigured what linguists call the phoneme, a basic sound element of language—the Lego-block atomic particles that unify all languages and describe their structures.
Whorf went on to look for root-signs in Aztec, Hopi, and Maya—a polymath polyglot. Even while keeping his day job, Whorf published in academic journals at a pace that a university professor would envy, working late, writing first drafts in elegant pencil and taking breaks to listen to classical music tinkled out on his mechanical grand piano. And when he started taking classes at Yale from a linguist named Edward Sapir in the early 1930s, the two developed an even bolder theory. All languages were related, but their differences weren’t the outcome of culture—they were its driving force. Languages themselves guided and restricted how their speakers thought about the world.
In a series of articles for Technology Review in the 1940s, Whorf laid the groundwork for what would become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or “linguistic relativism.” What you can say, they argued, puts rails on what you can think. Grammar was “not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas,” Whorf wrote. “No individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free.”
“Language dictates thought” is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in a nutshell. And this dictum has kept linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists riled up for decades. In part that’s because it’s very difficult to test. At the very least, coming up with an experiment to disambiguate language from thought requires finding some objectively measurable thing, a thing that exists apart from perception with its own verifiable, quantifiable reality, but that also exists as something entirely made up, a cognitive construct that languages invent words for.
In other words: color.
Excerpt from Full Spectrum by Adam Rogers. Copyright © 2021 by Adam Rogers. Reprinted by permission of HMH Books & Media.