In Chapter 5 of Jalaleddin, Raffi referred in Armenian to a “blue stallion,” which we translated as “grey stallion” in English, and which is actually what he meant. If we took his word at face value, we would have called the horse blue, and you probably would have wondered WTF we were thinking… But how did we get from blue to grey? And doesn’t Armenian have separate words for blue and grey, anyway?
Yes. In fact, the primary words Armenians use today to refer to grey and blue were already in use when Raffi was writing Jalaleddin. Not only that, but when we went back and double-checked the original, we saw that Raffi actually used those other words for grey in other parts of the book… “Blue” was used only once, and to refer to a grey stallion, which isn’t all that weird when one considers that we also refer to grey horses as blue in English.
It was not until we discovered this important article by Marco Bais in which he traces the etymology of the word that we realized that Raffi’s use of the term “blue” to mean “grey” when referring to the stallion was actually very appropriate. Bais traces the etymology of the Armenian blue from the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Originally, the word was used in Iranian and Sanskrit (and perhaps Armenian) to name colors on the grey-blue spectrum as well as to name pigeons. In Bais’ words:
The Armenian kapoyt [blue] and kaputak [sky blue] are borrowings from Iranian kapauta-, pigeon, and from its derivate kapautaka-, an adjective meaning “blue”. The connection between the color and the animal is also found in the Middle Persian kabod, which means “grey-blue, pigeon”, and in the Sanskrit cognate kapota, meaning at the same time “pigeon” and “the grey colour of a pigeon”.
This is similar to the observation made by @kingdomofvan of Twitter in this thread on Armenian color words, who notes that these Iranian and Sanskrit words meant blue, gray, blue-gray and pigeon (pigeons being gray-blue).
So the etymology of the word itself suggests that the use of the word is particularly appropriate when referring to the category “animals with grey coats”. Indeed, Bais shows us us that there is even a precedent of an Armenian writer using the word blue to refer to grey horses. He cites one of the last lines of Chapter 40 of the History of Arakel of Tabriz, written in 1662.
Here is the original excerpt, followed by Bais’ translation of it:
Իսկ ձին հսկայաձեւ էր, բարձրահասակ, զորեղ, լայնալանջ, երկայն ավիղ, կապտագույն, գեղեցկատես, սիգդաճեմ. մարդու նման որոշում էր ժամանակն ու դիպվածը եւ ճանաչում իր տիրոջը։
[And the horse was] giant-sized, tall-statured, strong-legged, wide-chested, long-necked, blue-coloured [grey], good-looking, fierce, able to choose the time and circumstances as a rational being is, and to recognize his master.
So “blue” horses aren’t all that strange after all…
…and neither is the blue horse fallacy:
The blue horse fallacy refers to the naive treatment of words as makers of meaning in a way that fails to acknowledge that people use words to express meaning in imperfect ways. It is easier to grasp the meaning of words–which we directly sense–than it is to grasp what people mean when they use those words in particular ways. In other words, the blue horse fallacy would have led us to translate blue stallion as blue stallion, which wouldn’t have made much sense. If we take the blue horse fallacy to its logical conclusion, then it also consists in thinking that the words we produce are accurate expressions of what we mean to other people.
With so much room for error, from the way speakers translate their own thoughts into words, to the way listeners translate those words into their minds, it is marvelous that humans use language to understand each other at all. Now if we credit language for allowing us to connect our minds by sharing information, then let us credit translation as being the Silk Road of language.