Worldbuilding: When Violets Are Blue

No, nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. I’m talking about how your characters see the world.

Violets were actually “blue” for a very long time. While violet as a plant goes back to Latin and older, the first time we have “violet” recorded as a color name is in 1370. We know people could see violet as a color just fine; heck, we have violet manganese pigments used in cave art at least 25,000 years ago. But what did they call it? We have no idea. Languages differ in what colors they admit exist, and how they carve up the spectrum of visible light. Scholars of color and language find that white and black come first in any language, usually followed by red and a plethora of others; blue is one of the middling colors recognized, and purples come even later than that.

This will affect your world in subtle ways that may be hard to convey through text, when you have to use your own modern language which does have blue and violet. Think of Homer’s “wine-dark sea”. The Greek of the time might split colors into yellow/green as one group, and dark green/blue/purples as another. So we don’t know what color Homer actually meant the sea was – and as people who have visited the Mediterranean have pointed out, sometimes light and waves mean the sea really is kind of purple.

Another possibility is that your characters aren’t standard-issue human, and don’t distinguish violet as a color at all. That probably means their ability to perceive red is off; while humans do see violet as a color in itself, we also perceive violet when what we’re seeing is blue light mixed with a bit of red. That will lead to its own set of knock-on effects, changing what works as effective camouflage and just how garish outfits may be to outside eyes.

Of course, the final reason violets might be blue are that the violets are actually blue. Where I grew up there were two common types of violets in the woods; a small, mostly white one and a larger violet one. But where they grew together? Every once in a while you’d have a stray plant whose flowers were a slightly streaky denim blue.

Not violet. Blue violets.

The world is sometimes weird that way.

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26 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: When Violets Are Blue

  1. *G* The way humans perceive color is so INTERESTING. And the way animals do it too now that people are getting creative with communication. Have you seen that one video of that little dog that likes to paint what are clearly flowers, but in ‘odd’ colors?

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  2. Don’t know how accurate the portrayal was, and given it was one of the Star Trek novels the canonicity is dubious at best, but Pawns and Symbols had Klingon visual ranges be different from human.

    If I recall the details right, they had a visual range higher into the UV ranges, and correspondingly lower frequencies such as red would quickly wash out – when asked to descibe the colors of the uniforms of Enterprise crew, his “yellow/gold” and “blue” were mostly accurate, but when asked a redshirt’s uniform colors he was all “oh simplest one, all black.”

    Was a plot point because the dude had walked into Enterprise’s dilithium storage, the door to which is red with heavy black caution and warning labels. But since his visual range couldn’t distinguish the red color, it appeared to be a solid black door.

    Like I said, dubious canonicity and I have no idea how accurate the color shifts were, but a neat touch in the background.

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      1. Maybe it looked black to them? Just because it was red in the show, doesn’t mean a writer couldn’t tweak things a bit. So the explanation would be “humans see it as red, but Klingons see it as black – or orange/yellow; you’re seeing it the human way, not the way a Klingon would.”

        Not saying the above explanation for Klingon vision *is* canon, just that someone could still make this explanation work, with the proper tweaking.

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  3. Color is definitely something I have spent a lot of time paying attention to and thinking about, because I grew up with both my dad and an uncle who were red/green colorblind. We’d often add black dots to the green pieces in games so that it was easier for them to be distinguished from red ones.

    When visiting art museums we’d often have discussions about what we liked about various pieces, and what my dad liked was always interesting to hear, because his perspective on what stood out and where the focal point of a piece was could often differ from ours because of what he could see.

    More recently he actually got a strip of LED lights in alternating red, blue, green colors, that had a control panel that let you control the brightness of each color individually. He can use it to let himself distinguish red properly, by turning the red lights up to full, and having the blue and green at about 1/8th the normal brightness. This lets red pop for him, like it does for us. It also let’s us see what he sees, by having the blue and green at full, and turning the red light down very low. Watching the red just fade into a dull brown or dark green color, and then turning it back up to full, and watching the red ‘pop’ back out, really drives it home just how different the world can look with just a minor difference in color perception.

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  4. Um… We do have violet as a color name before that.

    We just don’t have it as a color name in ENGLISH.

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dvioleus

    violeus

    Now, Cassiodorus is late-ish. He was a Christian author in the West, right before the Western Empire went kablooey. But it was a color, and there were dyes and art using the color before the word is documented.

    The main thing was that “purpureus” was red-purple almost to red, so anything violet was clearly on the blue side of purple.

    Greek had an even earlier color name, though:

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=i)oeidh/s

    ioeidis, derived from the plant’s Greek name, “ion”. (And it says it was a color name for the sea in Homer, so all the people who said Homer had no purple color names are big fat lazybutts, and I will remember this. Lazybutts. As if “wine dark” wasn’t enough.) The word also shows up in Hesiod’s Theogony.

    Pliny also called some kind of violet colored precious stone an “ion.”

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  5. Okay, I went over to the online MIddle English dictionary (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary ), and they cite some earlier quotations for violet as a color:

    a
    c1350 Apoc.(1) in LuSE (Hrl 874)p.192 : Þat is þe purpre colour medled wiþ violet [F colur violete] & wiþ rosen.

    (1346) Will York in Sur.Soc.423 : Item, Aliciæ ancillæ meæ unam tunicam de vyolet.

    (1374) Will York in Sur.Soc.492 : Item, lego Johanni Lowell…j goun de violet cum capucio.

    Also, you notice that the 1350 citation has a gloss in French (“colur violete”), so the writer is pretty sure that the color already existed in French. But I just now consulted a digital French dictionary linked by Wiktionary, and they think the color name didn’t exist until 1847! Clearly there are some lazybutts out there, or there is some kind of copyright issue with quoting French etymological dictionaries.

    I went over to the Bosworth-Toller Old English dictionary, and they have the color word sweart-heawen (“dark-sky,” basically) which is cited as a color for purple or violet wax candles. (Probably for Lent or Advent. Obviously it had a blue cast.)

    The plant “viola odorata” was called aeppel-leaf, apple leaf.

    Purple was “purpul” or “purpure”, but there was also brun-basu (“burnt/brown scarlet”) for purple and red-purple. Ge-baswian was the verb to dye things scarlet or brun-basu.

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    1. I don’t want to make people take a suspicious view of life, but almost everything published popularly about etymology is full of lies and made-up folklore. Also babyname books are full of lies and untruths. Trust no one.

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    2. The problem with placing “violet” as a color name is — well — I have a box of crayons with “apricot,” “peach,” “plum,” and “orange.” One of those things is different from the others — NOW. In modern times, even, it wasn’t.

      Likewise with crayons labeled “rose,” “pink,” and “violet.” ’cause everyone knows what a pink is, don’t you? Those flowers with the jagged edges, like they’ve been pinked (marked with a pattern).

      So it hits what C.S. Lewis calls “speaker’s meaning” vs. “word’s meaning.” It’s quite possible for people to mean the color by the term while people coming later are still referring to the thing.

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  6. Oh, and my lazy butt is showing.

    Haewen, not heawen or hevene. And it means “hue,” not “heaven.”

    Other similar color names: gren-haewen or haewengrenan (green-hued — but also translating Latin caeruleus, sky-colored, usually blue but sometimes green; and Latin glaucus, a gray-green), and blae-haewen (blue-hued, but translating Latin caeruleus).

    Trust no one!

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  7. Iliad, Book 11, line 298:

    Himself with high heart he strode among the foremost, and fell upon the conflict like a blustering tempest, that leapeth down and lasheth to fury the violet-hued deep.

    Odyssey, Book 5, line 55-56:

    But when he had reached the island which lay afar, then forth from the violet sea he came to land, and went his way until he came to a great cave, wherein dwelt the fair-tressed nymph; and he found her within.

    Hesiod’s Theogony has the Muses at the very beginning of his poem dancing around a “violet spring” of water – ie, the Heliconian spring on Mount Helicon. And then at line 844, Zeus fights with Typhon on the “violet sea.”

    So ioeidis ponton seems to be a pretty standard description, even if it’s not as much used as “wine dark sea” or “rosy-fingered Dawn.”

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    1. There do not seem to be any pictures of the Heliconian springs online, except for a picture of the crack where the Hippocrene used to come out. Bah. The Internet has failed me.

      So no color comparison.

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  8. I sometimes listen to these Doctor Who radio special type things on a website I have access to through the local library. I don’t remember which one it was, but there was one that had these reptile-like (I think. It’s been a while.) people who absolutely hated dealing with the Doctor because he gave them migraines just looking at him. At one point, one is talking to him, asking how he’s managed to do that and… he takes off his coat. And the alien can suddenly look at him properly. (Look up the Sixth Doctor if you’re not familiar.)

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  9. Oh, and “viola” was also a color word in Latin, and got a lot more use than “violeus,” and a lot earlier. Horace and Pliny, which is as respectable a pair as you could ask for.

    Horace, Carmina (Odes), Book 3, Ode 10, line 14 — “nec tinctus viola pallor amantium” — “nor the violet-dyed pallor of lovers” — which is an interesting phrase. Your unhappy lovesick guys have turned white, to the point that their skin is a little purply or blueish in places, where the blood shows through. Or they’re sleepless, which used to do that to one of my brothers.

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  10. You know, now that I think of it…. look up Sumerian….

    Okay, Sumerian had tons of color terms. I’m starting to feel like I’ve been lied to, by the media of science factoids.

    I know… hard to believe, right?

    It’s possible that a paucity of color terms is just because people aren’t looking at clothing inventories, or in other places where color terms exist. Or it might be that people are reading older literature that is translated badly, and that is causing this factoid. (Some translators call the “violet sea” just the “dark blue” sea.) Or it might be about available dye colors.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I am not criticizing your original post, mind you. Blue violets are definitely a thing, especially in English, and there are a lot more blue violets in the UK than in the US. (Use image search terms like “blue violets UK” and see.) Also, many purple violets look more blue as the bloom gets older.

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  12. This can cause some funny things even in the modern day. Like the “green” traffic lights in Japan actually being *blue* because the Japanese kanji for “blue” also means “green”. While the kanji for specifically “green” only means “green”. Reason being that the kanji for “green” originally was for “new buds and shoots” on plants and then later “greenery” in general. Meanwhile, the kanji for “blue” has seemingly always been a “color” term for green/blue in a variety of contexts.

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  13. “… while humans do see violet as a color in itself, we also perceive violet when what we’re seeing is blue light mixed with a bit of red.”

    For anyone who doesn’t know, this is actually how computer screens (and televisions) work. If the screen is showing a violet dot, it’s actually made of a red dot and a blue dot so close together that the eye can’t resolve them separately. Which works to trick the eye because of how the retina’s color receptors work. We have specialized cells called “rods” and “cones” because of their general shape; rods help you see in low light but don’t perceive color, while cones, which perceive color but need brighter light to activate, are subdivided into three* groups. The three types of cones respond best to wavelengths in the red, green, and blue areas of the spectrum, with diminishing returns the further away the wavelength is from their ideal response wavelength. Something dark blue will stimulate the blue receptors but not the green, something light blue will stimulate the blue receptors a lot and the green receptors a little, while something turquoise will stimulate both blue and green receptors more or less equally.

    The way computer screens work is based on knowing how the human eye perceives color. Because we know how different wavelengths stimulate the cones, we can replicate that with red, green, and blue lights. In a computer screen, there are tiny red, blue, and green LEDs (many screens use other techniques but I’ll only discuss LED screens here since they’re easiest to explain) clustered close together. Each pixel (dot) on the screen actually contains three LEDs. When the computer wants to make a pixel appear dark blue, it will light up the blue LED (to maybe half strength). To make a light blue pixel, it will light up the blue LED to full strength, and the green LED to about half strength. To make a turquoise pixel, it will light up the blue and green LEDs to about equal strength. That stimulates the blue and green cones in the eye about equally, just the same as how they would have been stimulated by actual turquoise light. So even though what we’re seeing is really a mix of blue and green light, and there’s no actual turquoise light reaching the eye, we perceive the color turquoise.

    So your computer screen is actually tricking you into seeing colors that aren’t really there. Fascinating, isn’t it?

    * Some people, almost always women due to how the genetics work, have four types of cones rather than the usual three, and can sense color differences that most people cannot. Other people have only two, or even one, type of cone, or one or more of their cone cells don’t work right; this causes the various forms of color-blindness. (Due to the way the genetics work, these people are usually men).

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    1. If you have glasses with a strong refraction index, this can be seen rather easily. If I look out of the “corner” of my glasses, they can split LED light up into the three colors again. Which can be really entertaining in places with lots of LED lighting…

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  14. So we don’t know what color Homer actually meant the sea was – and as people who have visited the Mediterranean have pointed out, sometimes light and waves mean the sea really is kind of purple.

    I found the phrase “wine-dark sea” somewhat odd, until I spilt wine in a bath. (For once, it was the cat’s fault, not mine, but I digress. Frequently.)

    It really did have the look of one of the hard-to-describe colors I’d seen way out at sea; it was as weird as pulling up to the Marines’ dock in Okinawa and the colors looking like a painting, not real life.

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      1. Yes, although I don’t know quite how the much stronger wine they’d use would change color vs the stuff we’ve got now– it was still *neat* to have a shock of recognition like that.

        (husband has taken up wine and cider, the ferment-until-the-yeast-dies stuff is about twice as strong as modern store wine)

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      2. Wellll, I’d assume it would vary by proportion (and that your bathtub did not greatly resemble the usual equipment)… But yeah, it sounds very cool. 😀

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