Basic Color Terms – Germanic & Old English

Today’s topic: color terms. But first, a brief lesson…

The Indo-European languages are a family of languages spoken in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The languages can be broken down into branches, such as: Anatolian, Indo-Iranian (like Iranian), Greek, Italic (Italian, French, etc…), Germanic (German, English, etc…), Armenian, Celtic, Albanian, the extinct Tocharian languages, Baltic, and Slavic.

All of these language groups share a common ancestor: Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE was spoken before 2000BC; by 2000BC PIE had broken up into its different branches (though of course, change would still occur – this was just the beginning of diversification and these branches would divide even further).

English is a Germanic language. But we can trace it back all the way to PIE and find links from English to other Indo-European languages around the globe. We don’t technically have records of written “Germanic” or “PIE”, but linguists have made educated guesses at what it might have sounded like. These education guesses are denoted by *.

I researched basic color terms over time – from PIE, to Germanic, to Old English, to English (today’s).

PIE originally had only four color terms: white, black, red, yellow-and-green. The word for yellow (*ghel-) used to be used for both yellow and green.

Germanic expanded its color lexicon to six colors: white, black, red, yellow, green, grey. Some people say this was because of cultural progress and material advances… but a quick comparison to Greek and Latin (both more advanced societies) shows that they stuck with the 4-color scheme – so it probably wasn’t due to this kind of development. Some people say that the distinction between yellow and green was made because of the growing importance of agriculture. This, I could be persuaded of.

Old English stuck with the same 6-color scheme: black, white, red, green, yellow, grey.

This chart comes from Anderson’s book, Folk Taxonomies in Early English. It shows the color terms in each of the 3 languages I mentioned (plus today’s terms).

color words

I do have some more cool facts about color terms, but that’s for part 2! What’s your favorite color word? Here’s a good list if you want some ideas.

My favorite color is purple. As for my favorite color word – I don’t know… Emerald? Azure? Chartreuse? Crimson? Vermillion?

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1




    i liked.

    cool info maggie, very cool.

1 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Put the lime in the coconut | Say Yes to Salad 09 09 09

Your Comment