William Gladstone and the Vocabulary of Homer

  1. Geoffrey Sampson

A very successful recent popularization of linguistics, Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, is based on the claim that the British statesman William Gladstone thought the ancient Greeks were colour-blind. And indeed, ever since Gladstone published on the language of the Iliad and Odyssey, he has been misunderstood in this way. In reality, Gladstone made it explicit that the difference he postulated between the ancient Greeks and ourselves was a linguistic and intellectual difference, not a difference in physical perception. But, more than this, his analysis of Homer’s language was a remarkable 19th-century anticipation of a number of separate ideas all of which are commonly taken to be original with the linguistics of the 20th and 21st centuries. This issue is of more than merely historical interest. It has an important lesson for us today about the fact that novel ideas require not only an original mind to produce them, but an audience intellectually ready to receive them.