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Colourblind: The Use of Homeric Greek in Cultural Linguistics

Melissa Funke

Colour terms in ancient Greek, specifically those used in Homer, have long played an integral part in the comparative work of linguistic anthropologists who study the words used for colours in living languages. Modern work on these terms began in the eighteenth century; Goethe, reacting to Sir Isaac Newton’s work on the spectrum, first postulated that the Greeks of Homer’s time had defective vision. Around the time of the appearance of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, William Gladstone offered a thesis similar to Goethe’s based on his understanding of the limited vocabulary for colour in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Work in this vein continued with Magnus (1877). In this paper, I examine the application of this early work on Greek colour terminology to scholarship that was foundational for the discipline of cultural linguistics. I discuss the shift from the Victorian-era connection between vision and terminology (e.g. Geiger 1871 and Marty 1879) to the mid-twentieth-century employment of colour terms, their number and use, as a means of determining what cultural linguists of that time identified as the evolutionary status of a language. This process was used as recently as Berlin and Kay’s Basic Color Terms (1969), a seminal, if controversial, work which suggests a universalist model of linguistic evolution. Berlin and Kay used Homeric Greek as one of their comparanda in establishing where modern languages sit on an evolutionary spectrum composed of seven stages.

I therefore pay special attention to the ways in which work by nineteenth-century classicists on Greek colour terminology has been employed to support more recent theories dealing with the historical development of language and the problematic nature of treating Homeric Greek as a dialect on par with modern Bulgarian or Tagalog. I shall begin with a discussion of Gladstone and Geiger’s influence on both classicists and cultural linguists and then look at the place of Greek colour terminology in scholarship from the 1960s that deals with the evolution of colour terms. My primary focus in this section will be Berlin and Kay. Finally, I shall consider why Homeric Greek occupies a significant place in the overall study of colour terms and whether this dialect merits the special status it has been given in cultural linguistics.

Session/Panel Title

The Classics and Early Anthropology

Session/Paper Number

68.2

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