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Things We Saw Today: Why Didn’t the Ancient Greeks Have a Word for “Blue”?

The YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE has a fascinating look into why the Ancient Greeks—and indeed, many other ancient cultures—did not seem to acknowledge or name the color “blue.” Instead, famously, Homer describes the sea as “wine-dark”—but why?

According to AsapSCIENCE’s “color timeline,” in many cultures studied by linguists, black and white are the colors that are named first—and blue is last “in every single culture.” One theory goes that black and white are the most evolutionarily useful, helping to distinguish between night and day, so it’s no surprise that these colors emerge in language first.

Then comes red, a sign of danger and blood, and a color communicated by some blushing or angry faces. Then, green and yellow helped human distinguish between ripe and unripe foodstuffs. All useful, frequent colors. But it turns out that there are few objects that are naturally blue and that we interact with frequently. Few animals and foods are blue. Further, blue is one of the hardest colors to create. The video points out that for thousands of years, no one even had blue pigment save the Egyptians (who definitely had a word for blue).

One of the coolest points here is that “language trains our brains to see colors differently.” This means that learning new words for colors actually creates a feedback loop in the brain that helps us see distinct hues that we wouldn’t have discerned before. In general, once we become familiar with a concept, we start to experience it much more clearly, where before it had been indistinct.

To illustrate this, AsapSCIENCE host Mitchell Moffit points out the phenomenon of when you learn a new word and then you start seeing and hearing it everywhere as though by magic. But the magic is really neuroscience, and our brains creating a new feedback loop for our new knowledge.

Speaking of new knowledge, here are a few more illuminating videos from AsapSCIENCE, whose mission is “making science make sense.”

It’s Thanksgiving! No other news today! What did you see out there? What did you eat?

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.