6.3 – Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher (2011)

The “Wine Dark Sea” in 2000 BC?

Why is it, Deutscher asks, that Homer uses the phrase “the wine dark sea” in his 4,000 year old poem The Odyssey? And why does he speak of “green honey”? This has been something of a mystery for classical scholars for some time. And then other works of Classical Greek and Biblical Hebrew from around the same time, use colour words in a very strange manner – why?

Studies on Homer & the Homeric Age – William Gladstone – 1858


William Gladstone (the soon to be famous English Prime Minister as well as classical scholar) proposed in 1858 that this wasn’t merely a matter of poetic licence. He noted several things about colour in Homer’s poetry in his Studies on Homer & the Homeric Age:

  1. The use of the same word to denote different colours which, according to us, are essentially different.
  2. The description of the same object under epithets of colour fundamentally disagreeing one from the other (e.g. “green” honey)
  3. The slight use of colour, and its absence in certain cases where we might confidently expect it
  4. The vast predominance of the most crude and elemental forms of colour, black and white, over every other.
  5. The small size of Homer’s colour vocabulary.

“On the Colour Sense of Primitive Tribes and its Evolution” – Lazarus Geiger 1867

Lazarus Geiger, a classical scholar and etymologist, pointed out in his 1867 lecture, that biblical Hebrew had no word for blue…

…and whatever condition caused the deficiencies in Homer’s description of colour seems to have affected the authors of the Indian Vedas & the Bible, as well as the Icelandic Sagas and even the Koran.

…and, on the etymology of the word “blue” in European languages… the word originates predominately from words which once meant “black” …which implies that in the past of these languages “blue” was not recognised as a concept in its own right

…Geiger then proposed a particular evolution of men’s perception of colour…

– red – yellow – green – blue – violet –

…which was the same across all languages… i.e. humanities ability to distinguish colour has evolved through first only distinguishing red to then yellow, followed by green and so on, with violet being the last of the colours to be distinguished.

The transition from not being able to distinguish blue to our being able is most clearly evident in our language of colour over the last 4,000 years.


Hugo Magnus – 1877 – the biological evolution of colour perception

Hugo Magnus proposed a mechanism for the biological evolution of colour perception, with red being the first colour to be distinguished owing to such light having the greatest amount of energy and blue being the last with the least amount of energy. However, he got this the wrong way around (blue light having the highest amount of energy in the visible spectrum, with red the least).

Following the 1875 Lagerlunda train crash in Sweden, where colour blindness emerged as the cause (with signalmen not being able to tell a red from a green signal), the evolution of colour became a hot scientific study, and it gets caught up in Lamarkism – the inheritance of acquired characteristics – i.e. that parents improved ability to distinguish different hues over their lifetime through greater exposure to different and vibrant new artificial colours is passed on to their offspring, much in the way that it was assumed that the parent giraffe’s constant reaching upwards stretched their own necks (imperceptibly) and that this acquired characteristic was passed on to their young, such that over several generations, a noticeable difference in neck length was discernible.

…this brand of evolution through acquiring the learnt skills and stretched necks of the parents was soon discredited, and the acquiring of an improved colour sensibility through similar means was forgotten about, along with any hope of a biological explanation for improved colour perception. Besides, evolution doesn’t work over such short periods of 4,000 years: the colour perception of humans had not evolved in this time.

So, how explain the increasingly complex colour vocabulary over this time?


Culturists Vs Biologists

Rather than a biological or anatomical change having been experienced, maybe a qualitative change in our language accounts for the difference?

“We see in essence not with two eyes but with three: with the two eyes of the body and with the eye of the mind that is behind them. And it is in this eye of the mind in which the cultural-historical development of the colour sense takes place.”            Franz Delitzsch – 1878

…the non-biological or cultural view of the problem was that it has been our language or culture that has evolved as opposed to our brains or eyes.





Has our language evolved?


Looking at “Primitive” Languages – Adolf Bastian, in 1869, studied the Tagalog language of a primitive tribe living in the Philippines, trying to discern if they were at an earlier stage of “linguistic evolution” – as it turned out they had no word to distinguish between blue and green, and so the two colours were treated as one. It was only after the arrival of the Spanish colonisers that they natives made the distinction, using the Spanish words “azul” and “verde” to make up for the deficiency in their own language.

Also, he claimed of the Teda tribe in Chad that they still didn’t distinguish between blue and green, having no word for either colour in their language.

In 1878, Ernst Almquist investigated the Chukchis in Siberia, who only had three appreciable colour words, distinguishing between black, white and red.

Albert Gatschet was looking at the native Indians of North America at the same time:

  • The Klamath Indians of Oregon used the same colour terms for things which our language would distinguish as yellow, green or blue.
  • The Sioux from Dakota used the same word “toto” for both blue and green
  • The coincidence of green and yellow and of blue and green was common among other American Indian languages as well

Rudolf Virchow discovered that the Nubians, the so called natives of Sudan, on show in the Berlin Zoo in 1878 had no word for “blue” at all.


W.H.R. Rivers made a prolonged and in depth study the natives of Murray Island in the Torres Straits in 1898, where he found that black, white and red were the only definitely demarcated colours…

…however: the indigenous population of Murray Island could, when tested rigorously, tell apart all shades of all colours. Also, they had no trouble using the “white man’s” colour words when they were taught them.

This was further proof that there was no biological factors at work – the brains/eyes of the Murray Islanders could distinguish colours as well as a westerner.

Yet these same islanders would quite happily reader to a clear blue sky in the middle of the day as being “black”…

…what is going on here?

Is “blue” merely a cultural convention?


Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution – Brent Berlin & Paul Kay – 1969

This study overturned the consensus of the twentieth century that there was no such thing as a “natural” division of the colour spectrum: languages divided the spectrum arbitrarily.

It was a central tenet of 20th Century anthropology and science that no one culture was in any way inferior to any other. There could therefore be no evolution, as no one language was any more advanced than any other. This belief was so pervasive and so deep that any talk of more advanced colour languages was effectively taboo; therefore colour language could not and did not evolve.

Berlin & Kay’s findings:

  1. Some ways of dividing the colour spectrum are far more natural than others
  2. Languages acquire the names for colours in a predictable order

…though revolutionary at the time, this was merely rediscovery of Lazarus Geiger’s sequence of 1867

– black & white – red – yellow – green – blue –


– black & white – red – green – yellow – blue –

…the explanation Berlin & Kay offered was to do with the fact that all cultures or languages eventually arrived at the same dissection of the colour spectrum, proving that there are natural constants at work – i.e. that this is something to with human nature/biology as opposed to individual cultures/languages

However, they still did not explain the order in which all cultures or languages acquire their colour vocabulary, i.e. first black and white, followed by red, then yellow or green, etc.

…in contradiction of Berlin & Kay’s conclusions, colour naming does not follow absolute natural laws – there are differences in the way in which different languages / cultures chop up the colour spectrum

…but there remains the order in which seemingly all languages acquire their colour.

…so are colour concepts determined primarily by culture or primarily by nature?

Does our mother tongue determine the way we think and perceive the world?

Edward Sapir’s Principle of Linguistic Relativity – 1924

…the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.

Sapir looked at the Chinook, Navajo, Nootka, Yana, Tlingit, Sarcee, Kutchin, Ingalik, Hupa, Paiute, and other indigenous American languages, in order to exemplify the “tyrannical hold that linguistic form has upon our orientation in the world”.

e.g. The Nootka language on Vancouver Island only has one word to describe the falling of a stone: the verb “to stone down”, as opposed to the Western manner of dividing the matter into two separate concepts, referring to the thing (the noun) and the action (the verb) separately. In Nootka there is no verb that corresponds to our general verb “fall” and that can describe the action independently of a specific falling object.

Sapir concludes that such concrete examples of “incommensurable analysis of experience in different languages make very real to us a kind of relativity that is generally hidden from us by our naïve acceptance of fixed habits of speech… This is the relativity of concepts or, as it might be called, the relativity of the form of thought.”

…but does the lack of a separate verb “to fall” mean that the Nootka perceive the world differently to those of us who do use such a distinct concept as “falling”? What of the English expression to rain, as in “it rains”… does this preclude English speakers from grasping two distinct concepts of “rain” and “falling”?

“There is one toxic fallacy that runs like quicksilver through all these arguments, and that is the assumption that the language we happen to speak is a prison-house that limits the concepts we are able to understand.”

What of “schadenfreude”? or the German language’s failure to differentiate between “when” and “if”?

Benjamin Whorf 1956 “Language, Thought & Reality”…

…“We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.”

…the grammar of each language “is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the programme and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions… We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.”

…“the general structure of Whorf’s arguments was to mention an outlandish grammatical feature and then, with a fateful “hence”, “so” or “therefore”, to conclude that this feature must result in a very different way of thinking.”

“…from the frequent fusion of noun and verb in American Indian languages, for example, Whorf concluded that such languages impose a “monastic view of nature” rather than our “bipolar division of nature”.”                Guy Deutscher

“Some languages have a means of expression in which the separate terms are not so separate as in English but flow together into plastic synthetic creations. Hence such languages, which do not paint the separate-object picture of the universe to the same degree as English and its sister tongues, point towards possible new types of logic and possible new cosmical pictures.”

“What surprises most is to find that various grand generalisations of the Western world, such as time, velocity and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe.”        Benjamin Whorf 1956 “Language, Thought & Reality”

e.g. The Hopi Language 1958 …contains “no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time”, or to past, present or future…

…thus a Hopi has no general notion or intuition of TIME as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate.”

…but… 1983 – Ekkehart Malotaki “Hopi Time” – conclusively discredited everything Whorf had to say on the matter – the Hopi language was capable of & regularly did refer to time, the past, the present, the future and the passing of time, including both tense and aspect in their verb forms.

The Prison-House of Language?

…”what we must escape from is the delusion that language is a prison-house for thought – that it constrains speakers’ ability to reason logically and prevents them understanding ideas that are used by speakers of other languages”. Guy Deutscher

Orwell’s 1984… “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

…“But why stop there? Why not abolish the word “greed” as a quick fix for the world’s economy, or do away with the word “pain” to save billions on paracetamol, or confine the word “death” to the dustbin as an instant formula for universal immortality?

“The New Testament, which contains theological and philosophical arguments, has been translated into any number of so called “primitive” languages, where new word have been imported or existing words have been adapted in their use.

“…And how has our language ever come to adapt to new concepts if the inventory of ready-made concepts in our mother tongue determines the concepts we are able to undertstand?

“…There is no evidence that any language forbids its speakers from thinking anything.”

Guy Deutscher


The “Boas-Jakobson Principle”

Franz Boas (who introduced Sapir to Native American languages) – 1938 …in addition to determining the relationship between the words in a sentence, “grammar performs another important function. It determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed.”

…such obligatory aspects vary greatly between languages

Roman Jakobson (1959):

“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey”

…the crucial differences between languages are not in what each language allows it speakers to express – for in theory any language can express anything – but in what information each language obliges its speakers to express.

e.g. …If I say in English “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbour” the gender of the neighbour is not specified. However, in French, German or Russia there is no choice to equivocate, these languages’ grammars compel the speaker to specify the gender.

…this does not mean of course, that English speakers are oblivious to the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbours… as Sapir/Whorf reasoning would imply… it only means the English speakers are not obliged to specify the sex each time the neighbour is mentioned, while speakers of some languages are.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain bits of information that can be left to the speaker’s discretion in some other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbour, I may not have to tell you the neighbour’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining, and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action each time they use a verb, because the same verbal form can be used for past or present or future actions.

…again, this does not mean that Chinese speakers are unable to express the time of the action if they think it is particularly relevant. But as opposed to English speakers, they are not obliged to do so every time.

…it seems to me that the Boas-Jakobson principle is the key to unlocking the actual effects of a particular language on thought. If different languages influence their speakers’ minds in varying ways, this is not because of what each language allows people to think, but rather because of the kinds of information each language habitually obliges people to think about. When a language forces its speakers to pay attention to certain aspects of the world each time they open their mouths or prick up their ears, such habits of speech can eventually settle into habits of mind with consequences for memory, or perception, or associations, or even practical skills.

Example 1: The Matses tribe of the Amazon





Example 2: The non-egocentric coordinates of the Guugu Yimithirr tribe of North Eastern Australia





Example 3: Sex & Syntax in French, German & Spanish





Example 4: Russian Blue

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