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.