Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Masshiro, Makkuro, Makka, Massao - "True" Colors in Japanese

If you've been learning Japanese for a while you might have seen one or two of these words already: makka 真っ赤, massao 真っ青, masshiro 真っ白 and makkuro 真っ黒. These words all start with the kanji for "truth," 真 followed by the name of one color or another, so one might wonder what's so "true" about them and what do these "true" colors mean in Japanese.

Well, the "truth" is that, in terms of color, the difference between shiro 白 and masshiro 真っ白 is exactly none. Both words mean "white". Both kuro 黒 and  makkuro 真っ黒 mean "black." Both ao 青 and massao 真っ青 mean "blue." And both aka 赤 and makka 真っ赤 mean "red."

The real difference between words for colors starting with ma 真 and simpler counterparts is the fact that the "true" colors refer to stuff that are "really..." colored. The ma 真 acts as a modifier for the color adjective and "really" is really the best translation I can come up with. For example:
  • masshiro 真っ白
    Really white. Very white. Pure white.
  • makkuro 真っ黒
    Really black. Very black. Pure black.
  • makka 真っ赤
    Really red. Very red. Pure red.
  • massao 真っ青
    Really blue. Very blue. Pure blue.

This is why you might find contradicting translations for these in dictionaries. You can find makka 真っ赤 translated as "deep red" and "bright red" at the same time. Deep red is darker than red and bright red is lighter than red, so anyone'd get confused to learn there's a word for both things at the same time! The same happens with massao 真っ青, that becomes "deep blue" and "bright blue" simultaneously.

But the question stands: why such words exist? How are they used differently? Basically, the same difference between "white" and "really white" in English is the difference between shiro 黒 and masshiro 真っ黒. If you'd say something is just "black" in English, then it's kuro 黒 in Japanese, but if you want to bring attention upon the blackness of the black by saying "really black" in English, then it'd be makkuro 真っ黒 in Japanese.

Usage Examples

In order to have a better idea, let's see some examples.
  • atama ga masshiro ni natta 頭が真っ白になった
    My head became really white. (literally)

The phrase above, which actually an idiom, could mean that someone is so sick he became pale (unlikely), that he pulled a Michael Jackson (even more unlikely), or that their "head went blank" (likely).

In English, specially in school exams and so on, it's common to say "oh, I was going to answer the math questions... but then my head went blank."  In Japanese, instead of "blank" the word masshiro 真っ白 is used. This is because a paper is "entirely white," that is, blank, would be masshiro 真っ白.
  • masshiro na yuki wa hontou ni utsukushii 真っ白な雪は本当に美しい
    Pure white snow is really beautiful.

Snow is white, so saying the snow is just "white," shiro 白, is mostly pointless. However, with masshiro 真っ白, the intent changes from simply describing the snow to putting emphasis on how much white it is. The same apply to other colors, we are deliberately putting emphasis on how much more purely colored they are.
  • gamen ga makkuro no mama nanimo hyouji sarenai 画面が真っ黒のまま何も表示されない
    The screen continues completely black with nothing displayed [on it].

Above, makkuro 真っ黒 tuned out to be "completely black." Remember, this isn't a literal translation, but it shows the many ways the Japanese modifier ma 真 can be interpreted in English. The screen isn't just "black," it's totally black. Entirely. Completely. It shows nothing.

Similar but different, makkura 真っ暗 means "really dark" and comes from the adjective kurai 暗い, "dark," instead of the color kuro.
  • osake wo nomu to kao ga makka ni naru お酒を飲むと顔が真っ赤になる
    If [I] drink alcohol [my] face turns really red.

Another idiom. In anime, red-turning faces are common. (o //// o). That sort of comical blush definitely doesn't depict the real world colors perfectly, nobody's facial skin become tomato all of sudden. At most, "slightly red" would be true, but people like to exaggerate what they say.

The word makka 真っ赤 is also often used with "blood," ti 血, in anime.
  • massao na sora. massao na umi. massao na kao. 真っ青な空。真っ青な海。真っ青な顔。
    Blue skies. Blue sea. Blue face.

The sky and the sea are some of the bluest blue things to have ever blued on the blue planet of Earth. It's no wonder that they are often referred to as massao 真っ青 instead of just ao 青.

And then, another idiom, because why not. The "blue face" thing is about being pale, actually, which is also what masshiro could say, but in a different way. The phrase kaoiro ga warui 顔色が悪い explains it: "the color of [your] face looks bad." You don't look well. You look like you saw a ghost or something.

(and yes, ma plus ao becomes massao. The s does come out of nowhere.)

Other Ma-Colors

So we have covered four colors... but what about the other colors? What about mammidori 真っ緑, "really green," for example?

Well, those words don't exist, practically.

Though I can't say for sure the reason. Maybe it's because "green" already stands out pretty good on its own, maybe "yellow" does so too, maybe you can only make idioms and expressions out of the four colors we have seen in this article, I don't know. I can say that other colors aren't used with the ma modifier. That's just how it is.

Other Words With Ma

There are, however, other words that start with ma and function in similar vein.

There is massugu 真っ直ぐ, "straight way, "direct," there's mapputatsu 真っ二つ, which means in "two" and is usually used when something is divided in "two." There's mattou 真っ当, which means "proper," like mattou na shigoto 真っ当な仕事. "proper job." Etc.

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