Chramer, gip die varwe mir! Germans and Colors


63 Responses to “Chramer, gip die varwe mir! Germans and Colors”

  1. Xopher says:

    And I forgot to say: Dr. Michael…Wol dir, werlt, daz du bist/also freudenriche!

  2. Jude Stewart says:

    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

  3. sergeirichard says:

    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!

  4. sergeirichard says:

    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.

  5. Nicco says:

    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.

    • sergeirichard says:

      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?

  6. foobar says:

    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.

    • Xopher says:

      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.

  7. lierne says:

    There is a Huell Howser show where he stops in a field of marigolds that are being grown for their seeds. The flowers, in turn, are fed to chickens to color their eggs.

    If you scroll to show #810 and start about 14 minutes into it, you can see his interview with the folks who grow the flowers.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As a cognitive and Germanic linguist, I enjoyed the post. The author of the post (and others who have commented) may be interested in the recent publication of the World Color Survey. If you’re not used to buying academic books, there may be some sticker shock. Here’s the Amazon link:

  9. current says:

    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?

    • Mr. Customer says:

      In English, this would be “beat someone black-and-blue”

    • Hopeful_Greis says:

      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’.”

      • Scixual says:

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

  10. sergeirichard says:

    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.

    • Anonymous says:

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

  11. Anonymous says:

    I imagine the Guttenborg fanboy title is such because of various Grimoires.

  12. jfrancis says:

    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.

  13. Redwraithvienna says:

    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 :)

  14. maralenenok says:

    I love this post. More random linguistics posts on BoingBoing, please!

  15. feuilletoniste says:

    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?

    • bob d says:

      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.

      • feuilletoniste says:

        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!’

    • Hopeful_Greis says:

      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.

  16. markbellis says:

    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.

    • sergeirichard says:

      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.

      • markbellis says:

        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.

        • sergeirichard says:

          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.

  17. Anonymous says:

    @ 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?

  18. Anonymous says:

    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!

  19. Anonymous says:

    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.

  20. Anonymous says:

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

  21. Jeremiah Blatz says:

    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.

  22. s.dinter says:

    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.

  23. Tdawwg says:

    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.

  24. querent says:

    man am i hung over this morning, and those friggin beers look delicious.

  25. katherose says:

    The US has blue potatoes.

  26. Hmpf says:

    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.

  27. Anonymous says:

    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.

  28. Anonymous says:

    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

  29. Bergjylt says:

    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.

  30. gullevek says:

    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.

  31. lewis stoole says:

    a very nice read. i love this kind of stuff.

  32. Anonymous says:

    cabbage is cabbage is cabbage.
    red cabbage – served with apples
    blue cabbage – served without apples.
    cabbages are chemical indicators of acid.

    for the germans


  33. jesnow says:

    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.

    • BigBang says:

      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.

    • Mr. Customer says:

      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.

  34. adamstjohn says:

    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.

  35. Anonymous says:

    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.

  36. Anonymous says:

    Check out this info-graphic on colors in cultures!

  37. Saint Fnordius says:

    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.

  38. Nicole Kekahili says:

    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.

  39. Anonymous says:

    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.

  40. redhead says:

    linguistics + culture = fascination for me.

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

  41. Anonymous says:

    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”.

  42. failix says:

    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.

  43. Xopher says:

    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.

  44. Antinous / Moderator says:

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

    • sergeirichard says:

      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.

  45. Xopher says:

    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.

  46. Anonymous says:

    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

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