Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 59.djvu/54

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44
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
PRIMITIVE COLOR VISION.[1]
By Dr. W. H. R. RIVERS,
ST. JOHN'S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY.

THE importance of language as an instrument of anthropological enquiry has been the subject of much difference of opinion. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the relation between language and thought is so close that the former has always been an almost exact mirror of the latter, and that every increase in intellectual development has been accompanied by, if not conditioned by, a corresponding increase in the development of language. On the other hand, the tendency which perhaps now prevails among anthropologists is to attach too little importance to language as an indication of the mental development of a race. The subject of the color sense of primitive races is one which is especially useful in studying how far the capacity for appreciating differences goes with the power of expressing those differences in language. We are able to put to the test how far the ideas of a people may be deduced from their language. We can collect the epithets used for color in various races, both of the present and of the past, and from a study of these epithets we can draw conclusions as to the nature of the color sense in these races. In the case of still existing races, we can then examine the color sense objectively and ascertain how far the conclusions derived from the study of language are verified by the result of the objective examination.

Historically, this is more or less what has been done. In 1858, in his 'Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age,' Gladstone called attention to the great vagueness of the color terminology of Homer; he showed that Homer used terms for color which indicated that his ideas of color must have been different from our own, and he was inclined to go as far as to suppose that Homer had no idea of color as we understand it, but distinguished little beyond differences of lightness and darkness.

Ten years later, Geiger,[2] from a more extended investigation of ancient writings, also came to the conclusion that the color sense of the ancients must have been very defective. He found, not only in Greek literature, but in the Vedic hymns of India, in the Zendavesta, in the Norse Edda, and in ancient Chinese and Semitic writings that there was evidence of great imperfection, especially in the names for green and blue. In hardly any of these ancient writings is any word used from

  1. A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, January 25, 1900.
  2. 'Contributions to the History of the Development of the Human Race,' p. 48.