The first episode of the new Radio 4 series Fry's English Delight looked at colour (listen for a few more days here).
Among the interesting points in the programme was the discovery in the 19th century by Gladstone, before he became prime minister, that Homer never used the word 'blue' in his writing - he described the sky as broad, starry and other things, but never blue. He also used other colour descriptions which sound odd today, such as describing the sea, and oxen, as wine-looking, honey as green, and sheep's wool as violet. Gladstone was much derided by classicists for his work (he had postulated that Gladstone was colour-blind), but a contemporary linguist, the German Lazarus Geiger, looked into the phenomenon more deeply and discovered that other ancient cultures described objects as being of a different colour than we would say today, so the Bible talks of green gold and red horses, for instance, and ancient Chinese, Indian and Icelandic literature is similar. Only ancient Egyptian, it seems, out of all the ancient cultures, had a word for blue. Guy Deutscher of Manchester University said that when languages begin to develop words for colours, red is always the first word created, regardless of the language, and blue is always one of the last - and some languages don't have a word for blue at all, or they don't distinguish between blue and green. Deutscher hypothesised that colour words developed for purely practical reasons; apart from the sky, there is not much else in nature that is blue, and, technologically, blue pigment was very difficult to produce, so ancient peoples did not have cause to talk about blue objects much.
Even tiny babies show a clear preference for the colour red, according to Dr Olwen Wilson, a child psychologist who appeared on the programme. She also said that children could only see that colours were different - blue and green, for instance - if their language had separate words for the shades.
Here is the programme on iPlayer, where it will remain until Episode 2 next Thursday.