Saturday, November 17, 2012

What about Blue?

As I've noted in my most recent blog posts,
the earliest period of the English language
did not have that many words to express color, 
favoring words for light or brightness instead.
We can be relatively assured that colors in the landscape
existed back then as today, 
but the lack of hue terms does make one wonder.

Ronald Casson, whose "Color Shift: 
The Evolution of English Color Terms from Brightness to Hue" 
was published in the journal Color Categories in Thought and Language,
theorizes that perennially overcast climate may have dulled color senses.
Additionally, there were few pigments for dyeing cloth
and much of the clothing, goods, and tools would have been 
limited to the natural and rough hewn, 
resulting in more muted colors.
The several color terms English speakers did have 
suggest they came from their landscape:
green leaves and trees, the red sunrises and sunsets, 
the yellow of wax and wood.

Casson includes a few more brightness terms 
with occasional uses for hue, among them:
the values hwit 'white', blæk 'black', and grǣg 'gray'.
Not surprisingly, white primarily described reflections and shining things
such as helmets, light, or silver. As a hue, white expressed 
 the color of hair, milk, flour, alabaster, whale bone, and snow.

photo courtesy of

Black was also a brightness term, 
denoting something that shined, flashed, or had burned.
Black as a color: soot, coal, pitch.
Also clouds, dark nights, and ravens.

And Casson says that gray described gleaming or shining light.
It also expressed the color of hair, 
the elderly (interesting how universal and long standing that is), 
animal fur, geese, bread, wheat, and porridge.
The latter three make me think the early centuries may have offered 
a rather unappealing cuisine, especially if the bread was gray.

But then what about blue? 
I would have thought that blue, the color of the sky and water,
would have figured more prominently.
But in fact, in the Old English language period,
blue as we know it is was conspicuous by its near absence.

blue aster photo courtesy of

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 
the term was originally blǣwen,
and it referred to not only pale blue, but also shades of pale gray and pale green.
Only after many years did it become associated with blue alone.
In that sense, blǣwen described cinders, indigo, and sapphire.
But the color word "blue" we owe to the French bleu
which entered the English language in the 14th century.
Blue skies, blue flowers, blue garments, the deep blue sea
now found expression in the language.

I like shiny and bright things, things that glitter and glimmer and glow.
But  I can't imagine a language that could express only those senses.
I'm glad English and other modern languages have a multi-hued vocabulary
because without one, our holidays might  be bright,
but they wouldn't be colorful.

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