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Quandary of Color




Why did ancient languages have so few words for colors, asks Barry Evans ("Homer's Wine-dark Sea" Jan. 10 and 17), and why do some languages use the same word for both blue and green? Were the ancients colorblind, and have some of us just lately learned to see? No, says Evans, we only differ as to which sections of the spectrum we happen to name. We could always see a full range of colors, he concludes, but we have varied ways of describing (or not describing) them.

It is now possible digitally to produce nearly 16.5 million colors. Unfortunately the human eye can discern "only" about 10 million, and we'll never have enough descriptive words. But wait, there are still more colors. Birds and insects can perceive hues in the ultraviolet range that are invisible to us poor homo sapiens.

The German/American artist Josef Albers taught what he called "the interaction of color." He said that "color is the most relative medium," meaning that the appearance of a color is affected by its environment." The very same color could look reddish against one background, for example, or greenish somewhere else.

Then there is color symbolism. What colors stand for purity or passion, sorrow or death? It depends on where you were born, and there are surprising differences from one culture to another. And what on earth are the hues of an off-color remark or a colorful anecdote? Our perception of color is so subjective, so strongly influenced by changeable physical and emotional factors, and our words are so limited, that they will never be precise. We can't fault Homer for the vagueness of his wine-dark sea. No one is guilty of misusing the names of colors; in this realm, so to speak, there are no white hats and no black hats.

Orr Marshall, Eureka

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