Chramer, gip die varwe mir! Germans and Colors

Chramer, gip die varwe mir (Shopkeeper, give me color!) is a line from a drinking song in the Carmina Burana, a medieval collection of songs and poems in Old Latin and Middle High German. The 'color' requested is rouge to redden the face of a young working woman in order to make her more appealing to the boys. This 'red' means life, vitality, strength, and in the Middle Ages being able to make it through the next winter was particularly attractive. Part of my research into Computer Assisted Language learning deals with the effects that colors have on people and how these difference among cultures can be used to assist in language learning. My own passion lies in the German speaking world and in reflection on my own language learning experiences, I started thinking about color difference in German.

My awesome wife Christy recently gave me an imported Bavarian folding table, aka Bierbank, Fest oder Bierzeltgarnitur for our anniversary. Besides being TÜV engineered to carry a load of twelve adults standing and jumping on the table during a bit of German Gaudi fun, the particular brand of Orange struck me. I was reminded of the specific beer garden tables I had seen in Munich on my first trip there.

Upon investigation, the color is labeled "Löwenbräu Orange", or "Traditional Orange" which begs the question, why? Could it be that the orange color was the most readily available in Southern Germany and therefore defined as traditional, or does the normally pale Munich Helles look orange in the summer light of a Biergarten?

This brings me to the issue of how colors vary in the German speaking world and how the language reflects this variance. Having spent a great deal of time in the German speaking world as a student I was always taken by small differences in things that I apparently took for granted. I remember once getting scrambled eggs once and thinking, "Wow, they are orange!" Although the word for "yolk" itself is "Eigelb" (literally egg-yellow), it has a distinct orange tone in my view. I have heard that is due to the feed in Germany or perhaps our yellow yolks are due to the inorganic nature of American egg farming. In any event, I know that many US Americans remark on this and wonder if the yolk is in some way tainted. When we look at foods, the color does matter and in the US and I have heard in the UK, a yellow yolk is the standard. In Germany, they prefer their yolks orange.

So do Germans indeed see the world differently? You can insert your joke of choice now, but there are some distinct variances in how colors and their linguistic labels are different. To stay with food, one finds that there are relatively few foods in English that have 'blue' in word except the obvious Blueberries. Is it that the color itself is an appetite suppressant, or do we label items that border on the red / blue hues more often red than purple or blue?

In Germany, particularly in the south German speaking world, it looks like they don't have this problem as there are several examples of this in blue onions (blaue Zwiebeln), blue cabbage (Blaukraut), and blue grapes (blaue Weintrauben).

It should be noted that these are mostly regional differences in German, as northern Germans, much like the English speaking world, label these 'blue' foods as red. In Northern Germany, the Blaukraut, becomes Rotkohl.

It makes me wonder if our red onions are truly red. Words, impacted by the visual, often vary at the crossroads between colors. This is evident in English as well as in German. If you are interested to find out where 'red' ends and 'blue' begins, check out the Color Label Explorer.

Not everything that is labeled with a color has to do with what you see, however.

"White" beer, otherwise known as Wheat beer, Hefe-Weizen, Weissbier, Witbier, etc. is a fine, delicious example. The term "White" comes from the brewing process when the wort boils to a point when the top foam becomes a particular 'white' color. This is when the brewing takes on another stage, and the beer has 'whitened'. In Berlin, however, there are two varieties of this "Weisse Bier": Red White beer and Green White beer. The color is achieved through Raspberry and Woodruff syrup additions.

These culturally based color perceptions lead to interesting linguistic differences between English and German, two closely related languages. Beyond the visual, there are associated idiomatic expressions that highlight slight perceptual differences such as the English bruised "Black eye" that is in German a "Blue Eye-blaues Auge". To be "blue" in English is to be a bit sad, while in German it means to be intoxicated (blau sein). "Green with envy" is "Yellow with envy -Gelb vor Neid" in German. Perhaps my favorite old-time example is the term the "Black arts" or "die Schwarze Kunst." While in English you may be in league with the devil, in German you are in league with Mr. Gutenberg. The black arts are the act of being a "Gutenberg fanboy" (ein Jünger Gutenbergs) means you are a book printer, presumably covered in the ink of your trade.


  1. I am from Vienna, Austria in here “Blaukraut” becomes “Rotkraut” (which impllies its red).

    The funny thing is that its neither blue or red but a dark violet :)

  2. White wine… yellow, yes?

    As an Australian living in America I can verify that I was COMPLETELY freaked out by the bright daffodil-yellow of the egg yolks here, compared to the light orange of Australian eggs. I got through three cartons before I got used to the idea that it wasn’t just a freak batch or something. Are American hens fed more corn? Or is it a breeding thing?

    1. Yes, it’s diet. I raise chickens and the more greens they’re fed (as opposed to the grain-based feed pellets that normally make up the diet) the more orange the yolks. Industrially raised chickens in the U.S. are primarily fed corn.

      1. Aha! and thanks…

        And for black-and-blue bruises, I was always struck by the line in Playing Beatie Bow – ‘I’ll punch you yeller and green!’

    2. After living nearly a decade in Germany and returning to the US, I was equally appalled at US eggs- color, consistency, taste etc. Don’t know the truth of the cause, but I suspect knowing it would make them even less appetizing.

  3. @ redwratihvienna:
    well this is an interesting fact – blaukraut (blue cabbage) and rotkraut (red cabbage) are in fact the same cabbage. but, to local traditions, one (rotkraut) is served with apples in it and the other is not. the cabbage used is a chemical indicator for acid (as in apples) and turns red in acidic conditions.

    apart from some anecdotes – what exactly is the point this article is trying to make? that language has historic aspects? is sometimes imprecise? varies in different countries?

    a “periorbital hematoma”, a bruise around the eyes – the germans would call blue eye. whereas brits call it black eyes. so?

    are blacks really black? is michelle obamas dress still “naked” when it has the skintone of a white female?

    what is the point in pointing that out? some rather superficial knowledge of german aside (orange is not just a color, but also a fruit and the drink made from the fruit)- what was the intention of the title anyways? “mittelhochdeutsch” is some root language of german. spoken by no one today. understood by a few enthusiasts in universities. recognized as being related to german by maybe 5% of the population (my first guess was dutch, yiddish oder hebrew….) – WTF?

  4. Just a small correction: the TÃœV does not engineer anything, it just certifies the safety of the Bierzeltgarnitur.

    THe difference in color of the eggyolks is purely due to breeding; the feeding does not figure into it that greatly.

    The Berliner Weisse is NOT a Weißbier; it undergoes a lactic acid fermentation.

  5. I’m from southwestern germany (where blaukraut is rotkohl) and can assure you that red onions are indeed red. well, actually each layer’s skin is a bright red, ranging from almost magenta to pretty-sure-it’s-purple.

    i suspect that the biergarnitur used to be colored bright orange so it would be harder to steal and re-sell. the color seems to me to be the RAL Verkehrsorange, which is used as a warning color on the vehicles and clothing of the german autobahn workers. if you’d have an orange biergarnitur, everybody would know that it’s not yours. these days, they are also available in unpainted wood and some kind of green…

    the turn of phrase “to be so mad as to turn black” (“sich schwarz ärgern”) may also be of interest. as far as i know, this generates from dead bodies turning, well, black – so actually you are staying mad so long that you’ll die and still be mad until your body decays. nice concept.

    yolk color is determined by what animals are being fed. maybe german hens are being fed colorants? i know that the organic eggs i buy here have rather light yellow yolks, so maybe there’s a difference ther.

  6. Well, I’m German, and I’m told the yolk colour here is to do with beta carotene in the chicken feed. Which is apparently put in there because people around here prefer their egg yolks a deep, orange-yellow. (I’d like to know how that preference came about, though!)

    Not all eggs look like that, here, though. If you buy organic, for example, the yolks are usually a pale yellow.

  7. As for the “Black Arts”: back in the day, a printer’s apprentice was called the “Printer’s Devil”, because of his ink-stained hide.

  8. Huh. We get both kinds of yolk in Norway. The orange yolks are referred to as “yellower”, and considered somehow more wholesome.

    I have heard some farmers claim it’s a sign of a healthier bird – that is, free-range birds tend to lay eggs with a darker coloured yolk.

  9. Don’t forget the connection to the political parties SPD-rot-weiss, CDU-schwarz-rot, FDP-blau, the Greens, well, and we all know who was Braun. Though I just noticed the CDU web site is all orange, and they call themselves “die Mitte” now.

    We have that in America too, though I think it’s ironic that the republicans are red.

    1. I don’t know where you got the colors from, but as far as I know (being German), SPD and Die Linke are considered red/rot (although in charts and statistics, Die Linke is usually presented in a pinkish color), CDU/CSU is black/schwarz, FDP yellow. As for the Nazi-brown, the color derives from their uniforms – which were brown 70 years ago; in contrast to fascist Italy’s uniforms, which were black. They were called “Schwarzhemden” (blackshirts) in German. Bündnis 90/Die Grüne is naturally green, being an eco-party. And, well, that’s pretty much it for the most important parties.

    2. I have been told (by someone who ought to know, but also might be full of crap) that the Red State / Blue State thing was not chosen out of a sense of irony, but because there was a time that it was not considered polite to conflate liberalism with communism.

  10. Awesome post! I visited southwestern Germany, and even though I didn’t know the language, looking back, I definitely remember the range of colors and how things (like egg yolks) did indeed look different.

  11. In the case of Rotkohl, is it possible that the difference is due to a difference in pH? If the water is slightly basic in South Germany and in North Germany the water is slightly acidic or the cabbage is usually pickled, there would be an actual color difference corresponding to the difference in terminology.

  12. linguistics + culture = fascination for me.

    please more articles like this! I love stuff like this!

  13. Many languages draw different distinctions between the colors. The Japanese will generally call grass or a green stoplight the same color as the sky. On the other hand Mongolians possess a wider set of distinctions at the basic color level, having one word for light blue and another for dark blue (and one for green).

    Linguistic research suggests that though languages sometimes lack distinctions other ones posses, certain colors always come first. Wiki “Color_term#Cultural_differences”.

  14. Where I live (New Jersey, US) egg yolk colors vary widely by brand. The organic ones are paler; the national brands are more intensely yellow-to-orange.

    As for red cabbage (as we call it) it’s red when you cook it, but let it get cold and it turns blue. Quite dramatically, in fact.

    jesnow, it lets the good guys use the phrase ‘better dead than red’. For that reason alone, I like it.

  15. yes, please more posts about linguistics.
    another example of colors used in german: “jemanden grün und blau schlagen” – ‘beat someone up green and blue’. “blue” because of the resulting bruises i guess, but green? what’s the english equivalent?

    1. To my eyes, bruises are on a range from blue to black with no trace of green, so I wonder if the saying does not have more to do with the reputation of the police. “So zogen sie durch Potsdam Für den Mann am Chemim des Dames Da kam die grüne Polizei Und haute sie zusamm’.”

      1. Depending on your skin tone, bruises can turn greenish and finally yellowish/brownish as they heal.

  16. The way different cultures draw lines of distinction between colors is fascinating. One example is that in Irish, we have the word “glas” which can mean both green and gray.

    I have a theory why. Though the weather as I speak is beautiful, there are many days in Ireland when the sky is gray. And as just about everything else is green, one one suffices to describe everything you can see. Very convenient.

    1. Irish also differentiates between the green of natural things (glas) and artificial (uaine). And “black” people are blue (gorm).

  17. I was re-watching the amazing James Burke series ‘Connections’ (the original 1 hour filmed episodes from the 70s, not the later half hour video ones) and he goes on at some length about the role of German color scientists of the nineteenth century. Fascinating.

  18. The pavements of Berlin must be very colorful on the weekends!
    I’d call the color of most ‘red’ cabbage purple.
    Some people can see further into the ultra-violet spectrum than others, so they might see purple where others just see red.

    1. I’d love a source for that. Even if some people can see higher frequencies of light, why would they necessarily perceive that as more blue?
      And though I am intrigued by the chemical indicator theory, red wine is also called blue in German. So I think it’s a matter of cultural definition. In some places, they categorize most purples as blues, in others they consider them a kind of red.
      As an aside: Orange didn’t used to exist. That is, the concept. The color is named after the fruit. Before the fruit became common, there was no intermediate color between yellow and red.

      1. I’m afraid I’m quoting my own experiences. In first year physics we did an experiment which involved counting the lines in the emission spectra of hydrogen – see – some people could see a certain emission line at the violet end, but most couldn’t – the professor said that only about 10 percent of the population could. So of course, if someone could see that frequency, they would perceive a red object that also reflected it as purple.
        I have heard that there were experiments at about the time of world war II using people who had cataract surgery (human corneas filter UV) in ship to ship communication using UV signal lamps – if they had quartz lens glasses they could see UV flashes from the lamps.

        1. That’s interesting in an almost philosophical way. Are people who can see further into the UV perceiving a color sensation that others cannot, or is their experience of this light frequency the same as that which others experience for a lower frequency? (And if so, is their overall perception of colors “stretched” to compensate?) After all, people perceive colors as an unbroken circle, red blending smoothly into violet. Is there room for an extra color!?

          But I think the vast majority of people, if not prejudiced by the name, would like you describe “red” cabbage as actually a shade of purple. The ambiguity lies not with the actual cabbage or the perception of it, but with the cultural categorization of the purples. Cultures that once didn’t have a purple category had no choice but to assign them to either red or blue. (Or call them “That cabbage color. No, the other cabbage”.) So perhaps the ambiguity surrounding cabbage – or wine – shows that their naming dates back to a time when purple was not a common concept.

  19. To complete your confusion: there exists also “schwarzes Weissbier” – black white beer which tastes more like malt and smoke.

    Ad #13: impossible, we cook our Blaukraut with apple!

  20. The pastured eggs (it’s actually the chickens that are pastured, not the eggs) that I get here (NYC) in the farmer’s market tend towards orange. All the non-pasture-based eggs (organic, factory, whatever) have yellow yolks. *shrug* I always assumed it was diet-based.

  21. Goethe’s Farbenlehre is a good ur-text on all things Chromo-German. He has some wonderfully loopy bits on how “savage” nations dress colorfully, but how sober, serious Germans wear dull, earthy colors: because they’re serious, natch. The lighter side of Enlightenment humbuggery and wacky science, that Goethe.

  22. Chickens are often given food with calendulas, edible flower added to produce brighter yellow yolks. My brother tells me that his hens have oranger yolks when they are foraging than when they are depending entirely on commercial feed.

  23. You sure about that last, sergeirichard? Lots of people have concepts of colors they have no names for. Are you sure that orange wasn’t just thought of as “that yellowish red color”?

    I know that the word comes from the fruit. That’s one of those cool things like the fact that ‘escalator’ gave rise to the verb ‘escalate’, not the other way around.

  24. Drink a glass of Merlot. Brush your teeth. Spit. The resulting froth is as blue as blueberries. I conduct this experiment nightly.

    1. Perhaps something similar is going on here.

      That’s a pint glass of Ribena blackcurrant drink, with an effervescent multivitamin tablet dissolved in it. Obviously I can’t rule out some chemical reaction going on, but what I think is happening is that in the liquid we’re seeing the subtractive effect of the pigment, filtering almost everything but red light. But with the opaque foam we’re seeing its additive effect, reflecting almost everything except red. So we get the compliment of red: Cyan (greeny-blue).

      Yes it looks disgusting… The foam is almost exactly the shade of bread mold. But I still drink it – For Science.

  25. This is exactly what I mean. People would have described a thing that color as yellow, or red, or yellowy-red or reddish-yellow. But they wouldn’t have broken up the rainbow into “red, yellowy-red” yellow, green…” They would have gone “red, yellow, green…” The many shades we now group as orange were once shared out between the reds and yellows. Orange is just a concept, a way of categorizing certain colors. And so now some people aren’t even aware that you can make orange by blending red and yellow!

  26. I’m a little disturbed at how long it took me to figure out why the chocolate shell on that cream egg is so thin.

    1. Thank GODS I’m not the only one!

      Now I really, really want to make white chocolate eggs with orange ganache centers, dipped in thin dark chocolate.

  27. I lived in Germany as a child. Among the things i miss are the colours one would see on the street. Many signs, buildings, etc. are painted in hues that seem to be so much more vibrant than the drabness so common in N America. I love it when i (rarely) come across something in “European colours”.

    reCAPTCHA sez: visors and

  28. Color perception differs very much where you are.

    Let’s take Japan. If a japanese kid draws the sun it uses red, nobody in Austria would use red, because the sun is yellow.

    Same for the street light. Green is in Japan blue (I admit the old lights have a slight blue tint, but it is not blue). So when you are on a crossing and you say “hey it’s green” no japanese will understand it. You have to say “It is blue”.

    And for egg yolk. In Japan it is orange, very strong orange. Bright yellow is rare.

  29. I remember reading that there are countries where the preferred yolk colour is almost white. Farmers everywhere have their (sometimes unconscious) tricks to ensure the right hue.

    I’ve lived in Germany for 18 years, and enjoy the whole colour thing. It’s often clear that the German term “Rot”, for example, includes many shades that I would never call “red”. And oranges and purples seem to be considered subsets of reds. I never felt this to be the case in English.

    By the way, anyone who has had serious bruising knows that a bruise develops a whole range of colours – certainly involving greens and yellows alongside blues and blacks.

  30. I’m an american who’s been living here in Germany for quite a while and also trained as a beer brewer, so the “white” in Weissbier refers not to the color, but to the wheat that makes the beer unique. “Weiss” is from “Weizen”; the closeness to the color white is probably because wheat flour is white, unlike rye or barley.

    I have also heard that the word “Orange” came late into the German language, and every now and then I do come across “Rotgelb” as the name for it.

    Oh, and as for the CDU’s new habit of making everything orange? That started just after the Ukranian “Orange Revolution” – their marketing experts are convinced that orange signifies change, meaning they can look like they’re changing without actually having to change.

  31. I love these kinds of linguistic and cultural observations. Here’s another one between French and German this time:
    In French we say “La lune” and in German we say “Der Mond”. The moon is a female in French and in German it’s a male. It’s exactly the other way around for the sun: “Die Sonne” and “Le soleil”. Apparently it’s because in France the moon is more welcome than the sun because it’s refreshing, whereas the sun in the south is strong and aggressive. For Germans being more to the north it’s the exact contrary.

    Oh and to the person asking since when the CDU calls itself “Die Mitte”: I don’t know since when they call themselves that way, but I know the party originates from the old catholic “Zentrum” party which translated means “center”. Weird eh? My guess is they wanted to rebrand in order to turn the page on their… let’s say problematic close cooperation with the Nazi party. It could even be argued that their vote was decisive in enabling Hitler’s dictatorship… yeah “Die Mitte” is a joke.

  32. Great post, great discussion, thanks all!
    I grew up in Southern Germany, Bavaria to be precise. When I was a kid in the sixties and early seventies, Bierzeltgarnituren weren’t orange – they were unpainted. Nowadays, you can buy orange ones even as an individual, so theft prevention doesn’t seem to be the main reason for the color. Giving beer, which is sold in 1-liter glass steins, a more appetizing color may be a reason.
    True that in Northern Germany, Blaukraut (as we call it in the South) is mostly served with apples, which turns it redder. The interesting thing is though that the raw cabbage is the same North and South, and it still goes by different color names.
    The notion of something turning green with strain is not unique in German: “You may be jogging, whiles your boots are green” – Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

  33. It was said to me once by a Swiss person that if a word is masculine in French it will be feminine in German and vice versa. I’m sure that isn’t true, but no doubt when you’re learning both languages it must feel like it at times.

  34. I’m still confused about the Swedish word for vegetables/”grönsaker,” which would literally translate to “green things,” since as we all know, not all vegetables are green. However, regarding yellow/orange egg yolks, we also have both in Sweden, and also call orange yolks “yellower,” although I’m not sure if there’s any major preference. Personally, I’d have to say I’m simply intrigued by the bright color of orange yolks, just like I’m sure many think Kraft’s toxic orange Mac & Cheese is superior to the regular dullness of lightly yellow homemade mac & cheese, despite all of its unhealthy, chemical ingredients.

    1. Green seems to be generally associated with vegetable matter. In English someone who sells fruit and vegetables is (or was) called a greengrocer.

      Which makes me wonder, how exactly do you groce greens – and in what way does it differ form monging fish?

  35. How very fantastic. I write a magazine column about color for PRINT, and I used to write one for STEP inside design, AND I write about color a bunch of other places…and I’ve lived in Berlin on and off for years. So this stuff is right up my alley!

    Re: the funny color-shift that happens in German (Gelb vor Neid, etc.), you might enjoy my recent article for The Believer, Color Sayings from Around the World, which covers lots of surprising metaphors other languages bring to colors. You can download a PDF of that here:

    Latest post for my column for PRINT here:

    Enjoy, color-fans!
    Jude Stewart

  36. 1. speak after me: “blaukraut bleibt blaukraut und brautkleid bleibt brautkleid.”
    2. repeat 10 times.
    3. ???
    4. profit!!!

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