01 May 2015

Skies of blue...

We've seen some glorious April weather here in London, and those bright Spring skies inspired us to think about colours, how we define them and how that language changes over time. In the English language blue clichés abound: out of the clear blue sky, blue sky thinking, black and blue...but did you know that the word blue is actually absent from many languages around the world?

The journey of colour vocabulary through the ages is a window into the ability of language to expand in order to reflect diversity and individual perceptions in all sorts of fields.

For example, former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was also a keen classicist, pointed out the unnerving lack of colour in classical Greek literature, such as Homer's Odyssey. One of Gladstone's hypotheses was this: did this mean that several millennia ago, the human race could simply not see colours? Anthropological research into native languages says no; they just didn't have a word for them. Language is functional and if there was never any reason to describe or refer to something in everyday life, why would there need to be a word for it?

The first use of the word blue appeared in Ancient Egyptian. As a population whose industry was widely considered world leading in its time, the experimentation and creation of dyes drove the Egyptians to create vocabulary to describe and differentiate these colours from each other. With industry and trade came competition and choice, and so language had to cater for this too.

We now know that languages are constantly evolving to accommodate changes in industry and society. Concepts such as sexuality and mental illness are constantly being better defined by language. These concepts are not just now being invented; like the colour blue, they have always existed, but until a certain point, were nameless.

The right language gives people crucial tools to understand and convey their feelings effectively - it empowers them. A heartening thought on a bright blue day.