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Why isn’t the sky blue?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2012

This segment of the most recent episode of Radiolab about color is super interesting. It seems that people haven’t always seen colors in the same way we do today.

What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer—one of the most influential poets in human history—that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howard introduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.

It’s worth listening to the whole thing…the bit at the end with the linguist’s daughter and the color of the sky is especially cool.

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