Psychology, Commerce, and Color Perception

Why did Homer immortalize the “wine dark” sea rather than, say, the “deep blue” sea? Was Greek wine blue?

That’s what we thought back in high school. But over at Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Tim Howard offer a different hypothesis: Homer didn’t have a word for blue. Indeed, William Gladstone–yes, the British Prime Minister–poured through The Odyssey and The Iliad and found no references to blue whatsoever.

And Homer wasn’t alone. Many old texts in many languages don’t reference blue.

Radiolab offers two hypotheses to explain this.

The first is essentially commercial: blue is extremely rare in nature and hard to synthesize. Red dye easy, blue dye hard. So people didn’t often encounter blue in their daily commerce. As a result, “blue” shows up in most languages later than other, easier-to-experience colors.

The second involves perceptual psychology. At the risk of oversimplifying, you don’t see what you don’t have a name for. So, in a sort of perceptual positive feedback, cultures develop words for “blue” once they start seeing it, and vice-versa. As Robert Krulwich puts it, “weirdly, color is a loss of innocence.”

Listen to this segment here (particularly if you are thinking “wait a minute, what about the sky?”):

http://www.radiolab.org/widgets/ondemand_player/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F211213%2F;containerClass=radiolab

P.S. Radiolab rocks. I became an avid podcast listener about three months ago–a side effect of doing physical therapy on my shoulder for an hour plus every day–and it is clearly best of breed.

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