February 2018

Vol. VI, No. 2

The Missing Shade of Blue

By Shiyanthi Thavapalan

Why don’t most ancient Near Eastern languages have words for ‘blue,’ ‘yellow,’ or even ‘color’?

And how can philosophy and cognitive science help explain this?

The Missing Shade of Blue was a problem the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776 CE) presented about sensory experiences and how we acquire knowledge. According to Hume, interactions with the world can be divided into ideas and impressions. Ideas are exact, but they are weaker copies of impressions, which are derived from directly interacting with the world. If you actually see, touch and taste an orange, the impression will be much more vivid and forceful than the idea of seeing, touching and tasting that orange. But could you imagine the taste or smell of an orange if you had never actually experienced these sensations before?

Hume also suggests the mind can derive an idea without a corresponding impression, based on related precedents. According to Hume, if a person were familiar with the all shades of blue –except one – because they had seen them before, and were then given a sequence of shades organized from light to dark with a blank space indicating the position of the missing shade, this person’s mind would nonetheless be able conjure up the missing shade.


Shades of blue ordered from light to dark.


Hume’s thought experiment is important to dispel misconceptions about mental experiences of color and representations in written and visual culture. It was long thought that the speakers of languages without abstract words for ‘blue’ or ‘yellow’ were insensitive to these hues. What’s more, in many ancient Near Eastern languages, such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Hebrew (spoken from ca. 3500-500 BCE), there is not even a word for ‘color.’

There are no ancient Near Eastern treatises that explain the nature of color. Did people think color was an immutable part of substances like stones and metals? Could it vary when subjected to forces like heat or light? We do not know. And yet, written documents suggest beyond any doubt that color was recognized as an essential aspect of natural and artificial substances. Although words for color appear in every stratum of recorded human activity—from prosaic administrative documents that chronicle day-to-day activities, in technically-informed texts such as medical, pharmacological and divinatory handbooks, as well as in more ideologically laden religious, magical and literary compositions—color as a facet of ancient life has aroused relatively little scholarly interest.

Beginning in the 19th century, linguists and anthropologists became aware that people from different societies thought about color differently. Initially, research focused on the semantics of color in ancient languages like Greek and Latin. The failure to find word-to-word correspondences between ancient terminology and modern English color words fascinated historians and led to the question of whether or not perception and color naming in the past differed from today.


Detail of The Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE. (BM 121201, image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)


Why did many languages only have a single word to designate both ‘green’ and ‘blue’? What does it mean when a language like Akkadian does not have an abstract word for the color ‘blue’? Could Akkadian-speakers nonetheless see and conceptualize ‘blueness’? Equally puzzling was the contrast between the ubiquitous use of colorful substances and objects and the relative dearth of terms or expressions for color. Ethnological data combined with research in cognitive sciences eventually demonstrated that color was a culturally determined and culturally constructed phenomenon. In many societies, words for things like luminosity, transparency, the contrast between wetness/desiccation, patterns and even psycho-emotional values are considered color terms. Different cultures make sense of color differently.

What this means is that in order to understand the words for ‘blue’ in ancient Near Eastern languages, we must first adjust our linguistically and culturally skewed perspectives. Different languages divide color space in their own unique ways. Unlike in English (and most modern European languages), Akkadian color terminology is not hue-based (that is, describable as red, green, blue, or yellow) but is rather oriented towards brightness and saturation. On the one hand, this means that an Akkadian speaker would have considered “shining” (namru), “dim” (eṭû) “dark” (eklu) and “multicolored” (barmu) a part of their regular color vocabulary, whereas an English-speaker would not necessarily do so.

On the other hand, this concept also means that one-to-one correspondences between Akkadian and English terminology is not possible. So, when providing translations, we must explain that da’mu is ‘dark+maroon’ and that peṣû is ‘light+white.’ In these cases, both features of the color are of equal importance for the meaning of the word. This may be difficult to imagine at first but there are English color words whose meanings are likewise not entirely hue-based. Gold and amber, for example, describe the quality of brightness as well as hue.

What can this tell us about human thought and cognition in ancient times? Did Akkadian-speakers partition, experience and remember things differently because they spoke Akkadian and not English? For instance, there are many more color words concerned with the quality of brightness in Akkadian than in English. Does this mean that they paid more attention to this phenomenon? Or is it the case that both Akkadian and English-speakers notice the same things but simply talk about them in different ways? Since we do not have living Akkadian-speakers to ask, this is a question that can only be answered by analogy.


Lapis lazuli cow amulet from Nippur, ca. 2900-2350 BCE. (MET 59.41.45, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Recent research on modern languages spoken all around the world suggests that language does play a role in shaping thought and cognitive abilities. Speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken among the Pormpuraaw aboriginals in northern Australia, talk about space using cardinal-direction terms rather “left” or “right.” To say “move that book to the north northwest of the table” or “my southeast leg is broken,” one has to be incredibly oriented at all times (even in memories!). This kind of spatial knowledge and ability to navigate are thought to develop in early childhood among Kuuk Thaayorre speakers.

What about color? Research suggests that if two colors are assigned the same name in a language, the speakers will judge these two colors to be more similar than if there were two different names for it. Russian speakers, who make the habitual distinction between goluboy (roughly light blue) and siniy (roughly dark blue), are quicker to differentiate between visual stimuli that fall into these two linguistic categories (one goluboy and the other siniy) than between stimuli that are called by the same name (both goluboy or both siniy). This is not the case with English-speakers, on the other hand, for whom this color boundary does not exist. Speakers of both English and Russian are equally capable of distinguishing perceptually between light and dark blues, but Russian speakers habitually use the color boundary even when performing perceptual tasks that do not require language.


Late Cypriot Prism seal, c. 1500-1125 BCE. (BM 11897 0401.620, image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)


The case of the Russian blues helps us understand how an Akkadian word like arqu, which means ‘pale’ and covers both the ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ spaces of the color spectrum, would have been understood in antiquity. Using one word for both colors is a linguistic (and cultural) choice. The sharp distinction between yellow and green that exists in our minds is a consequence of the language we speak, not because we are biologically capable of perceiving the hues any better. The same is true of the word ‘lapis lazuli’ that was one of the main Akkadian words for dark blue and also violet. When an Akkadian-speaker described something as ‘lapis lazuli-colored,’ they were less interested in distinguishing between ‘blueness’ or ‘purpleness’ than in capturing the particular lustrous darkness characteristic of the precious and much-loved gemstone.

Many of the colors in Akkadian are based on names for precious substances like stones and metals. Given that it is the best-documented gemstone in the Mesopotamian textual and archaeological record, it is not surprising that the word for lapis lazuli (uqnû in Akkadian/za.gìn in Sumerian) was used to describe dark blue, violet and perhaps also dark green. To understand the status of ‘lapis lazuli’ as a color word in Akkadian, Sumerian and ancient Egyptian, we should keep in mind that in many languages, both ancient and modern, the words for blue are tied to concrete substances.


Lapis lazuli seal, ca. 7th-6th century BCE. (MET 1999.325.97, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Sometimes the connection between the original referent and the color is forgotten as the language develops (such as the Russian goluboj “light blue,” originally “pigeon”). At other times, it remains alive. In Old English, spoken by Anglo-Saxons up to around 1150 CE, the term blæwen referred to dark (blue) dyes and textiles. The element blaw likely indicated “woad dye,” one of the most commonly exploited dyes of the Middle Ages. The etymology of two other English words for blue, cyan and azure, can also be traced back to older terms for substances. Cyan derives from Greek kyaneos, which is turn is connected to Akkadian uqnû. Both Greek kyaneos and Akkadian uqnû originally denoted a shade of dark blue but by the time the term entered the English language in the 19th century, it had taken on the meaning “greenish-blue”. The etymology of azure, from French azur, which describes the light or bright blue of a clear sky, can be traced through Spanish and Arabic to the Persian word lāžward, “lapis lazuli!” The etymologies of cyan and azure show how the meaning of two color words, both originally names for the same material, changed over time and accrued new values unique to the people who spoke those particular languages.

Realizing that the origins of colors in Mesopotamia are found in the idea of brightness and saturation allows us to dispel the notion that Akkadian has a poor and imprecise color vocabulary. Rather than look for equivalents to English words like red, blue and purple, we should understand how colors were imagined and experienced by ancient man under the conditions of his own speech community. Only then can we begin to appreciate the use of color in his art and poetry.


Blue glass inlays from Kalḫu, ca. 9th-8th centuries BCE. (MET 62.269.15a-d, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Shiyanthi Thavapalan is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Assyriology at Brown University.