Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/377

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

It seems that in every country the words for the colors at the red end of the spectrum are of earlier appearance, more definite and more numerous, than for those at the violet end. On the Niger it appears that there are only three color words, red, white and black, and everything that is not white or black is called red. The careful investigation of the natives of Torres Straits and New Guinea by Dr. W. IT. R. Rivers, of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, has shown that at Murray Island, Mabuiag and Kiwai there were definite names for red, less definite for yellow, still less so for green, while any definite name for blue could not be found. In this way as we pass from the colors of long wave-length towards those of short wave-length we find the color nomenclature becoming regularly less definite. In Kiwai and Murray Island the same word was applied to blue and black, and at Mabuiag there was a word (for sea-color) which could be applied either to blue or green, while Australian natives from Fitzroy River seemed limited to words for red, white and black. In a neighboring region of Northern Queensland Dr. Walter Roth has reached almost identical results, the tribes having distinct names for red and yellow, as applied to ochre, while blue is confounded in nomenclature with black. In Brazil, again, while all tribes use separate words for red, yellow, white and black, only one had a word for blue and green. Even so æsthetic a people as the Japanese have no general words for either blue or green, and apply the same color word to a green tree and the unclouded sky.

Here again we may trace similar phenomena in Europe; the same greater primitiveness, precision and copiousness of the color vocabulary at the long wave end of the spectrum are found among Europeans as well as among the lowest savages. The vagueness of the Greek color vocabulary, especially at the violet end of the spectrum, has led to much controversy. Latin was especially rich in synonyms for red and yellow, very poor in synonyms for green and blue. The Latin tongue had even to borrow a word for blue from Teutonic speech; caeruleus originally meant dark. Even in the second century A. D. Aulus Gellius, who knew seven synonyms for red and yellow, scarcely mentions green and blue. Magnus has pointed out that a preference for the colors at the violet end of the spectrum coincided with the spread of Christianity, to which we owe it, he believes, that yellow ceased to be popular and was treated with opprobrium.[1] Modern English bears witness that our ancestors, like the Homeric poets, resembled the Australian aborigines in identifying the color of the short wave end of the spectrum with entire absence of color, for 'blue' and 'black' appear to be etymologically the same word.

  1. In this connection I may mention that the preference for green, which, as I have shown elsewhere ("The Color Sense in Literature," Contemporary Review, May, 1896), developed in English literature with the rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth century.