11 January 2012

Let's Talk Lipstick Colours...and Ancient Greeks

First, the lipstick.

Pink Crush.  Golden Rose.  Petal.  Sugarplum.  Pink Lemonade.  Coral Dream.  Mulberry.  Shiny Conker. Plum Beautiful.  (Available from your local friendly High Street pharmacist, who shall be nameless but think footwear.)   

These choices, especially if you are serious about smearing colour enhancement on your mouth, are all based on one over-riding assumption – that they need to be reddish, or pinkish, allowing for the occasional foray into the orangeish or even brownish edge of the spectrum. 

Our capacity to see and enjoy shades and tinges is essential to adornment and has become, in the last century, a marketing dream.  But more important of all, perhaps, is the vibrancy we see occurring naturally – in the crimson fire of sunset or the dazzle of an azure sea.

Which brings me to the Greeks.  Or, more precisely, to Homer. 

For it would seem that the great poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey, writing over two and half thousand years ago, interpreted colours differently to the way we interpret colours.  And we know this through his use of language.

In the fascinating Through the Language Glass, author Guy Deutscher tells us that it was actually William Gladstone, best known for being British prime minister in the 1800s but equally at home writing scholarly tomes, who made the initial observation that Homer’s use of colour adjectives was bizarre:  describing the sea – and sheep - as wine-coloured, honey as green, and faces going green with fear. This seemed to suggest a totally other – or perhaps even less evolved  - way of seeing colour.

Was this some kind of colour-blindness, and simply in Homer himself?  No, contended one Lazarus Geiger, a German multi-linguist, who set about searching texts of past cultures, and found, amongst other things, a lack of reference to the colour blue – across, for instance, ancient Indian Vedic poems which yet contained many passages referring to the sky, and in the ancient Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written.   Geiger put forward the notion that our understanding of blue as a colour in its own right is a modern phenomenon.  "He showed that the words for blue in modern European languages derive from two sources; the minority from words that earlier meant green and the majority from words that earlier meant black.” 

Were these ancient cultures, then, rubbing along in some kind of pre-blue world, hampered by their perception of colour?  Or were there just anomalies, the way we might, for example, protest that orange juice is always orange?

Take the Greeks’ word for green, chloros (from which we get chlorophyll).  If the word also encompassed the idea of freshness, of growth, of light, of something even anchored in movement, we might better understand its use to describe honey, or even a face filled with fear. 

Colour seems fixed to a frame of reference, a context.  But, as Guy Deutscher would have it, how far can the eye see what words describe? And how far can words describe what the eye can see?  Does this ability differentiate societies and their languages?

Which brings me back to my periwinkle-blue make-up bag, a swift look at the lipstick, and a recollection that last time I was faced with the bewildering array of colour choice, it seemed crucial to opt for Rosewood instead of Red Carpet.

Deutscher, G. (2010) Through the Language Glass, London, Heinemann. 

Thoroughly recommended!

No comments:

Post a Comment