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14 September 2010 @ 02:31 am
Seeing Blue  
In the third season of Mad Men, Don Draper's latest extramarital interest, a freethinking schoolteacher, asks that unanswerable question: How do we know what you call “blue” is the same thing I see and call blue? Now a new book goes even further, telling us English has more color words that many other languages, and that ancient Greek appeared to have no word for blue at all. (Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, by Guy Deutscher. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)


I know it's been eons since I last posted, and I ought to have something new and different to say. But this will be another version of what I talk about in my note at the end of Pride/Prejudice: how language can illuminate or obscure our reality.

Deutscher tells us that the first color words to enter any language are always black and white, then red. Next comes yellow or green. Only then do other colors get their own words. Back in the nineteenth century, someone theorized that ancient peoples didn't have full color vision yet. A more recent (and believable) explanation for this progression of color terms has to do with dyes. As we became able to create colors, not just perceive them, we needed words for them.

But it seems to me that a lot of this is simply the increasing desire for specificity that occurs as society, and daily life, becomes more complex. Even in word-heavy English, in the past, the word “red” encompassed a lot of what we now separate out as orange and pink and mauve and... You see where I'm going with this. And it wasn't just colors. For a long time, there were only two seasons: summer and winter. Those great pagan holy days, the solstices, which now mark the official beginning of “summer” and “winter” on the calendar, were called Midsummer and Midwinter because “spring” and “autumn” were much later subdivisions to those two big ones.

Of course, this doesn't mean that midnight on September 22 brought an immediate deep-freeze or blizzard as “winter” began. And surely people could see the blue of the sky even if they didn't have a specific word for it. I imagine that if people needed to refer to it they might call it “sky color,” just as we still use the word for the fruit to refer to the color orange. (In German, btw, the word for blue is, in fact, “himmelfarb”--sky color.)

So what does this have to do with anything? It reminds me of another area where the language has become increasingly differentiated: sex and sexual orientation. Michael Feingold, in the Village Voice,


talks about how recent today's concept of “gay” identity is. “Homosexual practices, found throughout nature, have probably been part of human life since it first evolved, but homosexuality as we understand it, has existed for barely more than a century.” It's the exclusivity of today's identity that is so new. In the past, says Feingold, “Few [men], no matter which role they played in the act, would have assumed an exclusively homosexual preference; a great many might have been startled to know that people who thought themselves exclusively homosexual existed.”

This has been on my mind because of the two projects that have occupied me for the past months and kept me, a hopeless unitasker, from blogging. One was writing the full-length paper for that conference I spoke at more than a year ago, on Romance Fiction and American Culture. The other was auditioning and then rehearsing for the The Bilicious Show, a bisexual-themed variety show that will have its one performance, in Boston, on Thursday, September 23 (Celebrate Bisexuality Day).

Both of these projects led me to think about the issue of bisexual identity and the words that help or hinder us from understanding it. The conference paper, based on my first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, discussed what I consider to be the most revolutionary aspect of the novel: its heroine—a woman, much like the author, who not merely accepts, but desires her bisexual husband. My ten-minute act in the Bilicious Show focuses on this theme, as I introduce myself and my writing, standup comedy-style, then read a short excerpt from Phyllida.

So much of the confusion surrounding my novels seems to stem from the relative newness of the term “bisexual” compared to the slightly older “gay.” People still aren't really sure what a “bisexual” person is; many people still don't believe that bisexual men exist. Yet, as Michael Feingold points out, in the past more men were, technically speaking, “bisexual,” at least in their behavior, than exclusively homosexual. We just didn't have words for any of those distinctions, and what terms we did have were often pejorative, to put it politely.

In my note to Pride/Prejudice, I compare the idea of putting explicit (bisexual) sex into Jane Austen's story to the astrophysics concepts of black holes and dark matter. Just because “until recently we were unable to verify the[ir] existence,” I wrote, “doesn't mean they don't exist.” And when I addressed the issue of whether Austen “knew” that she had portrayed a pair of bisexual men in Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, I called that a “meaningless, modern question, like looking at a black-and-white photograph and asking why everybody's wearing gray.”

We've become so fixated on the concept of exclusivity that we no longer accept the possibility of coexistence, of fluidity. If Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley love each other, and make love with each other, than how can they also love their wives? It's as if love is a solid, heavy substance that can't be divided, or a toggle switch that's either on or off, instead of that glorious feeling that overtakes us and operates by its own mysterious power, beyond our control. Perhaps there are times when it's better to call everything “red,” rather than worrying over whether it's really hot pink or fuchsia or tomato or fire-engine or...

Words alone don't create a color or an identity. Blue is still blue, whether we call it “blue” or “sky color” or never refer to it all. Sex between people of the same gender has occurred for millenniums. It's only recently that we've needed words for the people who engage in it. And it's only the blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking, since we've needed words to indicate whether such people are exclusive in their attraction. But just as “bisexuality” begins to take root in the language, the “bi” part seems outdated—and the “sex” part seems unnecessarily specific. Surely there are more than two sexes, we insist; and it's not all about sex: it's about love and relationships.

In my work as a library cataloger, I must look for the most specific term. “African elephant,” not just “Elephants.” And yet, for people involved in real relationships in real life, sometimes specificity seems to go too far. We labor over each category: cis-gender or transgender; monosexual or bisexual or pansexual, monogamous or polyamorous. Must we each occupy a solitary niche? Isn't it enough, I sometimes wonder, simply to celebrate that we, human beings all, love and are loved?.
(Deleted comment)
ann_amalieann_amalie on September 14th, 2010 06:52 am (UTC)
Wow! You LJ people are speedy! I only just got this thing proofed, and wham, bam, a beautiful comment just like that.

Thank you for the compliment on my essay, and thank you for the perfect Irish color scheme.
Gaedhal: Robert&JudeAlmostKissgaedhal on September 14th, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC)
I was going to make this same point about Gaelic,
but it seems to be true in older versions of English,

You see many references to people having "gray" eyes
in older stories and songs. I've never in my life
seen anyone with "gray" eyes, so I assume they mean
a version of blue.

Also, many old ballads interchange red and gold, as
in "Her hair was as red as the gold," which suggests
that they saw gold coins as "red" and "red" hair in
many cases was actually blond. This would explain
some of the descriptions of the Plantagenets as having
red and gold hair at the same time (the Tutors, too).

From my limited knowledge of Russian, I know that the
word for "red" and for "beautiful" is the same. Our
guide in Moscow made this point again and again!
ann_amalieann_amalie on September 20th, 2010 04:23 am (UTC)
Red is a very inclusive color, especially in older works. It was the first named color after black and white, according to that book I mentioned. So it makes sense that the concept of "red" would encompass what to us are different colors.

After all, most people with "red" hair have, at best, coppery or orange hair. Lots of what's still called red hair is closer to blond. I'm very aware of this because, now that my hair is totally gray, I want to color it honest-to-goodness bright loud RED--and they actually sell colors like that--but gray hair won't accept them properly. I have to settle for versions of reddish-brown. (Sob, sniffle.)

I agree with the Russians--I think red is ultimately the most beautiful color of all.

Edited at 2010-09-20 04:24 am (UTC)
martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on September 14th, 2010 07:30 am (UTC)
have no word for blue at all

the oft quoted "wine dark sea" .. when you only see one ocean/sea/body of water, you only think about it as that color, until you see the shallows of Barbados, or the reefs of Australia, The Pacific, or the Atlantic, you dont know that water comes in a lot of colors (or the Tiber is that browny green sludge either) then you have to differ them.

re cataloging, I still disagree about Sonar for bats, Sonar is under water..
ann_amalieann_amalie on September 14th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC)
We don't use "sonar" for bats in our library catalog. We use "echolocation." It's the narrower, more *specific* term. ;)

And here's one thing I like about my job: I get to catalog the giant bandicoot of Papua New Guinea. How cool is that! (A publication about it, not a taxidermy model, but still...)

martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on September 14th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
*long drawnout OOOHHHH* (then this visual of a Giant Bandicoot sitting on your desk ready for its interview) that is so very cool.