Myth & Mind: When blue is not blue: A glance at color through the eye of linguistics

Dec 29, 17 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

“Starry Night Over the Rhône.” Painting by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

By Reva Sherrard

When Ahmed ibn Fadlan, 10th-century diplomat from Baghdad to a king on the banks of the Volga River, encountered the Scandinavian settlers there, he described them as covered fingers to neck with green tattoos. The account I first read this in was puzzled what to make of the “green” markings, as colored tattoo ink is a relatively recent innovation. If that writer had glanced below the surface of the translation — or had had personal experience with tattooing — they would have seen that the word for “green” in ibn Fadlan’s Arabic also meant “blue.” A further historical glance would have informed them that the medieval Arabs were by no means the only society to assign the two colors, distinct to modern eyes, a single name. I, myself, am significantly tattooed with traditional black ink, and can testify that once healed a black tattoo in fair skin becomes dark blue-green.

Likewise the visible veins beneath fair skin can look green or blue, though we call aristocrats “blue-bloods.” The phrase is a direct translation of Castilian Spanish sangre azul, a term of pride and bigotry used in the age of inquisitions by pale families with no skin-darkening tint of Jewish or Moorish genes. It is a delightful historic irony that the very word azul (blue), like countless other common Spanish words, was loaned from the Moors who occupied all but the northernmost regions of Spain at the height of the Islamic cultural Golden Age. Azul supplanted the native blao, which would have been a better choice for medieval Castilians wishing to make a point. In the very phrase meant to establish their ethnic Europeanness they were using a gone-native Arabic loan-word, itself borrowed originally from the Persian name for lapis lazuli, lājvard. People, like the precious goods they trade abroad and their words for them, will move from place to place, and transform under new skies.

Consider for a moment what “blue” means. Before we used it to characterize eyes, flowers, or fabric dye we first had to recognize it in the clear sunlit sky and bright water. Our Germanic word’s root, Proto-Indo-European *bhel-, signified the bright flashing quality of both and also gave rise to Latin flavus, “yellow,” and Greek phalos, “white,” not to mention the Old Spanish blao and blavo, “yellow-gray.” The common origin of color words with such different meanings may in part be explained by the dominant theory of color vision, a wonderfully complex and subjective function, which has color information transmitted from retina to brain in the context of three pairs of opposites: dark and light, blue and yellow, red and green. We cannot perceive a blend of the pure opposites (try to imagine a reddish green) but each is nonetheless inextricably connected to its antithesis in our neural wiring.

So there are the light aspects of our modern connotative complex for “blue.” What about the darkness of a bruise, or the melancholy tones of blue notes in jazz? Old Norse, tongue of the early-medieval Scandinavian settlers who left their heavy stamp on English language, culture, and genes, seems to have been the influencing factor. Blár, from the same Proto-Indo-European root as the contemporary Old English cognate blaw, primarily meant a dark leaden hue, as in “blue in the face” or “black and blue.” Where other European languages referred to Sub-Saharan Africans as “black,” the Norse term was blámađur — “blue man.” Perhaps the contrasting senses, blue-bright and blue-dark, have something to do with the inseparable opposites of color vision, or with the geographical realities of Scandinavia, where a “sky-blue” sky is even rarer than in England. (“Sky” is an Old Norse loan-word still current in Scandinavian languages. Its meaning? “Cloud.”) Regardless, cultural influence goes both ways; the linguistic descendant of blár, blå, is as readily used for a sunny sky as for a bruised, minor-key mood.

It’s my guess that the shifting, contradictory senses of “blue” come from the sea. Northwestern Europe’s native peoples and languages owed everything to the seas continually reshaping the land they lived on, from the fish they ate to their ability to travel and trade. The Old Irish word glass, from another Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to shine” and related to words like gold, glimmer, and gleam — and glass of course — was used to evoke the color of the sea. Blue, green, gray, glint and gloom: it encompassed all and meant none specifically. It’s a cousin of the Classical Greek glaukos, used to describe the shimmering Mediterranean — a bright sea wholly unlike the brooding North Atlantic but just as essential to the cultures it supported — silvery olive leaves, and light-colored eyes. From a modern perspective these are difficult terms, nigh impossible to translate; we want to know whether a word means blue or green, or what. But in embodying an elusive quality they do their job perfectly, and occupy a cognitive niche that can tell us a lot about where we, as peoples and as humans, come from.

*****

While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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