Why was Homer’s sea “wine-dark”? Did the Greeks have no word for blue?
Through the Language Glass
by Guy Deutscher
Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher – review
An exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity, about the curious interactions between language and perception
by Tim Radford
n April 2002, the great journal Lloyd’s List gave shipping a sex change, switching the nautical pronoun to “it”. According to Guy Deutscher, “‘she’ fell by the quayside.” There, in half a sentence, you have the delight of this book: pertinent anecdote, relaxed wit and an uneasy sense that the author is always one jump ahead.
As a reporter who once covered the waterfront, I loved Lloyd’s List. Its closely printed pages recorded so much of the world’s shipping traffic and its tragedies (in its berths and deaths columns, so to speak). But editorial fiat couldn’t change the thinking of a generation that metaphorically pushed the boat out, or waited for their ship to come in; that caught the tide or sailed against the wind; that grew up with Captain Marryat, C S Forester and Joseph Conrad. To such people, English ships display feminine grace, not because a bulk carrier, barge or battleship is innately female, but because some linguistic convention ensured that for a thousand years after the Norman Conquest, the English language retained “she” for shipping even as it neutered almost every other inanimate thing, including trees.
Put like that, the logic is obvious: of course a language that confers masculinity on a pine tree but femininity on a palm would be able to play with imagery that might make no sense in translation to a language that did not. Deutscher’s book begins with a promise to demolish the intellectual clichés, and subvert glib anecdotal demonstrations of the way our mother tongue defines or limits our thought, and then confirms that in very limited instances, it almost certainly does shape the way we see the world. The book is a joyous and unexpected intellectual journey through the strange interaction between language and the world that language attempts to describe.
At its heart is an old conundrum. Why was Homer’s sea “wine-dark”? Did the Greeks have no word for blue? William Ewart Gladstone, already an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer but not yet a prime minister, published in 1849 a 1,700-page, three-volume work on the poet of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and ended it with a chapter on Homer’s perception and use of colour.
According to Deutscher, this profoundly affected “the development of at least three academic disciplines” and triggered a war over the linguistic link between culture and nature that, 150 years on, is still being fought. For Gladstone was inclined to think that because the Greek language offered such a limited visual palette, then perhaps colour perception had not evolved: perhaps ancient Greeks saw the world more in black and white than in Technicolour.
This hypothesis could – up to a point – be tested: perhaps other “primitive” cultures maintained the same handicap? Imperialist Europe and expansionist America were not short of subjects for research.
The question was: does not having a word for blue (or green) mean that people don’t see that colour? Tests showed quickly enough that colour-blindness is not common, and is evenly distributed everywhere. So could there be something about the language that dictated a particular group’s perception of or attention to colour? Or something about the demands of the local environment that necessarily shaped the tribal language?
The journey to a not-quite-cut-and-dried conclusion draws on history, ethnography and psychology as well as a little physiology, and delivers from the mix an exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity. Great names flit across the pages; great stories, too, about the astonishing variety of human speech and the riches of even the most supposedly primitive, vanishing languages. The speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, for example, would never advise a motorist to take the second left: all their conversation is in exquisitely precise geographic coordinates. They even, says Deutscher, dream in cardinal directions.
This is a book written in blissful English, by someone whose mother tongue is Hebrew, who is an expert in near-Eastern languages and who can no doubt talk his way confidently around Europe and far beyond: a living rebuke to the obdurate Anglo-Saxon monoglot.
Homer’s Sea: Wine Dark?
by John Noble Wilford
In another of the digressions that often give spice to the pursuit of science, scholars find themselves wrestling with the concept of Homer’s ”wine-dark sea.” The expression appears dozens of times in those epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet the sea in question, the Aegean, is no less blue or blue-green than any other. What did Homer have in mind?
The question is being raised once again in recent issues of Nature, the British science journal. It was proposed in one letter to the journal that perhaps the wine the Greeks drank was indeed blue.
Robert H. Wright and Robert E. D. Cattley, of Vancouver, British Columbia, noted in their letter that the ancient Greeks seldom took their wine neat. They often diluted it with as much as six or eight parts of water. Since the geology of the Peloponnesus, the site of some of the action in the epics, includes large formations of marble and limestone, the authors said, the ground water must have been alkaline, perhaps sufficiently so ”to change the color of the wine from red to blue.”
Dr. Wright is a research chemist. Dr. Cattley is a retired classics professor from the University of New Brunswick.
Other attempts to explain Homer’s wine- dark sea have included such ”solutions” as the absence of a word for ”blue” in the ancient Greek language, congenital color- blindness in the particular Greeks of the Homeric tales and an outbreak of red-colored marine algae. Robert Rutherford-Dyer, a retired classics professor at the University of Massachusetts, said scholars had long puzzled over the ”very odd” color tones sometimes used in classical Greek writing. ”They don’t seem to reflect the same division of the color spectrum,” he said.
But Dr. Cattley said the Greeks’ color- blindness was ”patently unlikely.” And a red tide, he and Dr. Wright said, was possible, but because it would not have lasted long it was not a satisfactory explanation for Homer’s use of the wine-dark expression in so many instances.
Dr. Cattley, though he shared authorship of the blue-wine idea, believes that as a phrase the wine-dark sea was less a description than a useful poetic device. This is the traditional interpretation by classical scholars. Throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey phrases and descriptions are repeated, the wine-dark sea being only one of the most familiar and poetic of these.
This is presumably the legacy of the generation of minstrels who first told the tales that Homer later transcribed and embellished. The minstrels fell back on such stock phrases to give their audience time to absorb what had just been sung and to give themselves a moment to think about what they were going to sing next. Besides, in Greek the phrase wine-dark sea made a perfect flourish at the end of the hexameter line used by Homer. The phrase, Dr. Cattley said, is ”just one of a thousand formulaic lines that the minstrels used time and time again on the old principle that ‘He writeth best who stealeth best all things both great and small, for the great mind that used them first from nature stole them all.’ ”
Dr. Cattley dismisses the suggestion that Homer, being blind, made an unreliable witness in such matters. ”We don’t know if Homer was blind,” he said. ”It’s a tradition, that’s all. In fact, some people argue that there was no one person called Homer.” Reaction to the Wright-Cattley letter in Nature was neither swift nor widespread. But Dr. Rutherford- Dyer, in a letter published in Nature last month, disputed the blue-wine idea because Homer in specific references to wines described them as red, dusky or black – ”hence probably like modern mavrodaphne wine.”
A Meteorological Explanation
Dr. Rutherford-Dyer suggested a possible meteorological explanation, which he elaborated in the October issue of Greece and Rome, a British journal of classical scholarship. A wine-dark sea may even have been a sign of good weather ahead, a sign like ”red at night, shepherds’ delight.”
According to his reasoning, high dust content in the atmosphere gives a dark red sunset, and its reflection in a dark sea can give a ”color and texture very close to that of mavrodaphne.” He recalled seeing this phenomenon off Maine recently when the sky carried dust from the far away eruption of Mount St. Helens. And dusty skies, he added, indicate slow- moving winds and, therefore, stable weather conditions.
Dr. Rutherford-Dyer wrote: ”Further examination of the references to ‘wine-dark sea’ shows that the phrase is normally used on weather conditions at dark.” But he, too, agrees that it may be a phrase of more beauty than meaning. At least one modern poet, W. H. Auden, must have concurred. In ”The Shield of Achilles,” he wrote of ”ships upon wine-dark seas.”
Robert Fitzgerald, the American translator of Homer, noted in an interview that the literal translation of the phrase is ”wine-faced sea.” Still, he uses ”wine-dark sea.” As a romantic expression, he said, it ”can’t be improved on.”
Years ago, Mr. Fitzgerald recalled, he had an intimation of what the minstrels and Homer might have had in mind. He was on a ship coming out of the Corinth Canal into the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea.
”The contrast of the bare arid baked land against the sea,” Mr. Fitzgerald said, ”gave the sea such a richness of hue that I felt as though we were sailing through a bowl of dye. The depth of hue of the water was like the depth of hue of a good red wine. So I associate the expression with the richness of hue rather than a specific color. I’ve been content with that as my personal interpretation.”
This seems, therefore, to be one of those tangential scholarly issues that will probably never be resolved yet never go away. ”It was not such a serious matter for Homer and the minstrels,” Mr. Fitzgerald remarked, ”as it is for the correspondents of Nature.”
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