Wine-dark sea and violet sheep: what difference could climate make to colour perception?

It seemed the Greeks lived in murky and muddy world, devoid of colour, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.

You will probably know that the Greeks didn’t have a word for blue, that Homer called the sky bronze and the sea the colour of wine – this article, based on a podcast, broadens those factoids out into a more interesting and systematic statement about colour words: until relatively recently, apparently no language had a word that corresponds to our word “blue” and therefore arguably nobody speaking these languages had access to the concept. Being physically and physiologically identical to us, they could perceive the area of the spectrum we call blue just as we do, but it was not a named and bounded thing in their world. Hence they chose other words which did name bounded concepts.

I have a slightly different thought about this, which is entirely not scientific, but rather based on what I did on my holidays. In 2008 I went paddling round the Dodecanese for a bit, and by far the most strange and wondrous place I went – then or ever – was Patmos, the monastery island and UNESCO world heritage site where St John the Evangelist, holed up in a cave, wrote the Book of Revelations. I’ve discovered places more beautiful, and places I’ve fallen more in love with, but I’ve never quite encountered that atmosphere again of being somewhere a bit, well, mythical. It’s about 10 hours from Athens by ferry, over towards the Turkish coast. I’ve been saying ever since that if I need a quiet time to get something done I’ll go back, but I never have. As on many other Greek islands, the two main settlements are Skala (“port”) where the ferry calls, and Chora (“town”) up on the highest summit, and bar some loosely strung together villages and the kind of beaches you can only get to by boat, plus some square miles of goat and wild basil, that’s about it. A third settlement, Grikos, was trying to work up to being a tourist hotspot when I was there, but it was hampered by the UNESCO development rules.

When you stand outside the monastery walls in the Chora, you can see the whole island, and the sea, and the other nearby islands, in a way that makes you feel like you’re in a computer game, or (which is what you’re really thinking about when you’re thinking about the computer game) in Homer. It made me understand why Neolithic and then Bronze Age cultures – artefacts, institutions, behaviours – spread and self-seeded so rapidly in this sea; the whole place is its own map, and to stand at any vantage point on the map is to be tempted. The view and situation is partly what conjures the unworldliness, but it’s also the light, and this is where the colours article comes in. I remember wandering over the hillside looking for the ruins of the ancient chora and it was visually pretty hard work – the light was so blinding I’d have been hard put to name any colours in front of me if I didn’t already “know” they were there. The duns and yellows of the soil and grass and the greyish brown of the stones all reached towards the same drained white of bone. I could of course have named the blue of the sky, benefiting from my knowledge of that word, but I wasn’t looking at the sky, because it was too bright. And colour perception must be as conditioned by behaviour and interaction with the landscape as any other form of environment perception. I “know” what the colours of Greece are because I’ve seen them in pictures – actually being there and attending to your own senses is a different experience.

Davidoff says that without a word for a colour, without a way of identifying it as different, it’s much harder for us to notice what’s unique about it — even though our eyes are physically seeing the blocks it in the same way.

It strikes me therefore that the article summary omits a possibility, perhaps the biggest one. I can understand the argument that the lack of a word like “blue” somewhat limits a person’s potential to conceptualise that light pattern on the retina in that certain way – but that’s a “we have this, which they lacked” argument. Even if you then go on to say that we can’t distinguish different shades of green for which we don’t have the words but they do. It’s a nice concession to the power of different people’s word-concepts, but it doesn’t fundamentally depart from our own concept of how to go about perceiving and describing colour. In English colour-culture, I think we look at a thing, our eyes wide open and absorbing the sun’s light at a given rate, we note the overall most consistent colour across its mass, find our nearest word-concept and away we go.

It was a surprise to me to reason out that this was what I was doing, but of course it’s probably not the only way to see. In a very, very bright climate, maybe it’s a little different. After all nobody has told you how to see colour, and colour is just one perception/description taxonomy that may be more or less useful to you. The most consistent colour across the mass of an object is no longer the most striking thing happening to your eyes. The most striking thing happening to your eyes is that it’s so bright you can’t see a bloody thing.

The colour of everything in Greece is essentially light. Even given a degree of genetic difference, I assume human eyes simply absorb more light per unit of time in Greece than they would further north. So perhaps the best way to distinguish between one thing and another, is to refer to the parts that aren’t the colour of light, that aren’t difficult to look at, or the parts where the light has left a certain kind of consistent shadow. It is only in this context I can imagine how I might perceive a beige-pale brownish sheep on a Greek hillside as something like violet, because some of the shadows in its coat might be purply and maybe its visible fleshy parts would be pink-purple. The rest of it, for all practical purposes as you stand in bright sunlight squinting at it, is the same colour as the light that falls on it, and the same colour as most of the land around it.

If you look at it like this, you realise why nobody in Homer picked out a given colour for the sea and sky (let alone the same colour), because those are the most mutable and light-responsive things, as well as the biggest visual objects, in the Greek world. If you look at where the light isn’t, if you can figure out how to do that, maybe you do get bronze, and wine.

I’d love to know if any of this was remotely plausible, that we’re talking here not just about different colour words but different criteria for detecting and describing colour. Maybe the science of visual perception could answer this for me, but it could also be a question of figuring out whether there’s any relationship at all between colour words – either their range or the order of their development – and the climatic conditions of the place where the language developed. Basically, the brighter the place, the fewer, and generally darker, and further towards the red/yellow side of the spectrum, colour-words it ought to have.

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