“Like it or not, we are slaves of the hour and its colors and forms, subjects of the sky and of the earth. Even the part of us that burrows deepest into itself, disdaining its surroundings, does not burrow along the same paths when it rains as when the sky is clear.”—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I’ve seen this piece from the Business Insider frustrating folks, reporting that terms for the color blue weren’t widespread in the ancient Mediterranean world. Most of that frustrations seems misplaced. We’re missing an opportunity because, while this is a puff piece, what it describes fits into a discussion that has been going on for nearly half a century within cognitive anthropology. It’s easy enough to hear the results of these studies as generally pejorative, but that’s not what I see. This sort of thing allows us to appreciate past cultures more deeply as it makes clear their differences from us, not their inferiority.
There has been a discussion in psychological, anthropological, and linguistic circles for some time about the development of color terms in human languages, beginning with Brent Berlin and Paul Kay publishing Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution in 1969. The article causing all the bustle helpfully points us toward some precedents for this in philological work nearly a century older than that.
While this or that study has its flaws, on the whole it seems like we have good reasons to say that languages develop, and sometimes lose, color terms in fairly predictable ways.
(Notice the ‘fairly predictable’ part. It means that, yes, there are exceptions because that’s how things tend to work. Those exceptions can often be informed by the model, though. E.g., is this color term developing early because of an especially visible use of it?)
The development of color terms also isn’t the same thing as seeing color, as the article makes clear enough (contrary what its click-baiting title suggests). However, color terms are tightly bound up with thinking about color and describing color. The richer the vocabulary, the better folks tend to be at making rapid distinctions between color, the better they are at conceptualizing and deploying the colors in creative ways.
The structuralist in me can’t help but point out, too, that as with so many things, some of our most basic forms of thought are first done with things. We think with our experience of the animal, of the weather, of the color. Which means that there are additional conceptual-symbolic resources that come into play with an expanding color palette.
The ancients all saw the same colors we did, but they necessarily thought about them differently. That doesn’t make them more primitive than us, it just suggests that when we look to their description and imagination of color, we have to think about how their vocabulary might be influencing what we are seeing. It ought to give us insight into how they were deploying the color terms they did have. They will use them more broadly, often by reference to specifics (e.g., ‘green like honey,’ i.e. yellow) that we don’t share, but as any creator knows, constraint also fosters innovative use.
Similarly, they will be making different sorts of associations based on the way those extended color terms group together experiences. I’m only speculating here, but I start to wonder about the green pallor of death and the association of the dead with honey emerging against the backdrop of them sharing a common color term (alongside the way bees will gather to corpses).
It should also help us to appreciate more clearly how we are separated from them, alienated from the world as they understood it. Lacking a common frame of colors, we have to struggle more to appreciate the symbolic and imaginal worlds orchestrated by the color terms they did have available.
Terms like ‘alienation’ sound negative (and to an extent are negative), the awareness of alienation also provides the seed of respect. The colonizing assumption that a smaller vocabulary equates to a more primitive and less human experience is itself a withdrawal from this alienation, one that we don’t confront when we try to engage in a similar obfuscation, only with positive results (i.e., “we are all the same in how we experience the world of color.’).
Taking these seemingly small differences seriously, we can become aware of our difference and distance from these people in a positive sense, as a gap that bears witness to the distinctiveness of their societies and the uniqueness of their lives. It ought to make us humble about the claims we often attempt to make on their behalf.
I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who claimed that one of conservatism’s strengths was that it took democracy so seriously as to give the dead a voice. Well, the corollary to that is that if you give the dead a voice, you also have to come to terms with the very basic reality of their being dead. Necromancy or no, the dead occupy a qualitatively different temporal sphere than us, one more difficult to overcome than the difference between contemporary cultures.
Alienation teaches us that it isn’t always our place, or within our capacity, to overcome the distance that separates us from another. It teaches us that the effort to erase that difference can quickly turn into a sort of violence to the very people to whom we are reaching. If we want to care about the dead, we have to care about them as dead.
This gets us back to something else I was saying recently about taste and culture: to savor, you need to take time to discern the details and subtle depths, to follow its invitation toward understanding. Don’t spit it out because it tastes oddly at first. Strange as it may sound, that it is the road toward meeting. The road that only ever sees the present in the past barely manages to grab at the ghost of the past, much less its spirit.