Sunday, March 26, 2017

Names of Colors in Japanese - Kuro, Shiro, Aka, Ao, Midori, Kiiro + Others

In English, we have the colors white, black, red, blue, yellow, green, orange... uh... gray, purple.... brown...? Cyan, magenta... and... you know, the other ones. In Japanese, there are names for colors, too, obviously, and in this post I'll talk a bit about them.

To begin with, the word for "color" in Japanese is iro 色, sometimes read with its on'yomi reading shoku 色. The "name of a color," like the words red or blue, is an iromei 色名. And the word iroiro 色色 (色) means "various" and has absolutely nothing to do with colors.

Basic iromei 色名

Let's start with the basic names. Starting with the neutral colors," or musaishoku 無彩色.

Now the "primary colors", genshoku 原色

(related: masshiro 真っ白, makkuro 真っ黒, massao 真っ青 and makka 真っ赤, words derived from some of the colors above)

And finally, the "secondary colors", nijishoku 二次色

If the text is too hard to remember, try this image instead.

The names of the basic colors in Japanese: aka, ao, kiiro, midori, murasaki, daidai-iro, kuro, haiiro and shiro.

These colors are great and all, but they are not enough. Other common colors in Japanese include:

Of course there are even more names, some a lot more obscure than these, but I won't spend the whole post translating the names of the colors from Japanese to English. If you want to look up a certain color in particular, check out the list of names of colors in Japanese. It has a few hundred names with the romaji and everything else.

Using Colors in Japanese

Now that you know some names for colors, the next question is: but how do we use this stuff?!

The answer is: it depends.

Kiiro, Chairo

First off, some colors, which end in iro 色, may become i adjectives turning the iro into iroi 色い. This is the case of kiiro 黄色, "yellow," a noun, which becomes kiiroi 黄色い, "yellow," an adjective, and sometimes is shortened to just ki 黄.
  • kiiroi tori 黄色い鳥
    Yellow bird.
  • tori no iro wa kiiro da! 鳥の色は黄色だ!
    The color of the bird is yellow!
  • chairoi ocha 茶色いお茶
    Brown tea.

But this isn't applicable to all colors.

Aka, Ao, Kuro, Shiro

Some colors, like aka, ao, kuro and shiro can become akairo 赤色, aoiro 青色, kokushoku 黒色 and hakushoku 白色, all of them nouns. However, there is no such thing as akairoi 赤色い. You can't say that. They don't work the way kiiro 黄色 does.

For these colors, the adjective is a simple i suffix: akai, aoi, kuroi and shiroi. Examples:
  • kuroi neko ga me no akai, shiroi nezumi wo aoi sora ni nageta 黒い猫が目の赤い、白い鼠を青い空に投げた
    The black cat threw the red-eyed white mouse at the blue sky.

As you can see, in these colors we don't even need the iro 色 suffix. We just throw an i at it and we are done.

But this, too, isn't applicable to all colors.

Midori, Murasaki

With midori 緑 and murasaki 紫, we can put the iro in them, midori-iro 緑色 and murasaki-iro 紫色, but we can't put an i in them. There is no such thing as midorii 緑い or murasakii 紫い in Japanese, not even midori-iroi 緑色い or murasaki-iroi 紫色い!

So what do we do? How can we say something is green or purple in Japanese when they don't have adjective forms?! Well, there's actually an universal solution.

All Colors Are No Adjectives

All Japanese colors are no adjectives, which means you can use the no の particle with any of them, specially with the ones that are not i adjectives. For example:
  • midori no kuruma 緑の車
    midoriiro no kuruma 緑色の車
    The green car.

For those unfamiliar with the no の particle, it often indicates possession, but it can also be used with certain words, called no adjectives, to further describe a noun, or, even, in some more strange ways.

Anyway, this no particle is important because it can be used with any color. Any of them. Even those which have i adjective versions. For example:
  • ao no ekusoshisuto 青のエクソシスト
    Blue Exorcist
  • Darker than BLACK -kuro no keiyakusha- -黒の契約者-
    Darker than BLACK -Black Contractor-
    (never translate titles)

Types of Names of Colors in Japanese

Now that the grammar lesson is over, let's go back to the vocabulary.

There are, in the Japanese language, four distinctly different types of names for colors. These are:
  1. Names of colors from colored things
  2. Names of colors with forgotten origin
  3. Names of colors from other names of colors
  4. Names of colors from English names of colors

Unknown to you, we have already glanced at colors in the first two categories in this post.

Colored Things and Their Colors

What happens is that all names for colors in Japanese have an origin somewhere. A root.

For example, daidaiiro 橙色, "orange," and momoiro 桃色, "pink," are actually colors of fruits, daidai 橙, "orange (the fruit)" and momo 桃, "peach."

The "color of the orange (fruit)," daidai no iro 橙の色, is "orange," daidaiiro 橙色. Get it?

This kind of naming happens with as many things as it's possible to imagine. Sometimes it's identical to how it works in English. Like with sumireiro すみれ色, which is "violet," the color, because sumire すみれ is "violet," the flower.

A "golden color" is kin'iro 金色 because kin 金色 is "gold." A silver color is gin'iro 銀色 because gin 銀 is "silver". Something can even be said to be "rat-colored" in Japanese, or having nezumiiro 鼠色.

The point is, if it has iro 色 in it, it's the color of something, but not necessarily something that is present in the scene. You can say something is rat-colored without having a rat lying around for reference.

Forgotten Colored Things

As with all things, they age. Names of colors are no different. The meanings the words were born with could have made sense in the past but they are so long forgotten they hardly make sense anymore.

One example is chairo 茶色, "brown," or very literally cha no iro 茶の色, "the color of tea." Now, for most people, tea is actually brown, or maybe I'm thinking of coffee, but the point is it's somewhat brown. For the Japanese, however, tea is green, because the most common tea is green tea.

So it's no wonder that the Japanese wtf at the fact that chairo isn't the color of their ocha, which is midori, by the way, just like you might wtf at the fact that murasaki, "purple," is actually a plant. The purple gromwell, from which a purple dye is made of, but most people don't even know that exists.

Even the color midori was originally a name for another thing, the "green" of the land. As in the grass and trees. Which are green. But so much time has passed nowadays it's easier to imagine the reverse, that you call the grass and trees green because they are midori, and not vice-versa.

The thing is, that with some names for colors, they are so old and ancient nobody remembers or cares what they used to mean anymore. But they did use to mean something at some point in history.

Mix of Colors

There is a large number of names for colors in Japanese that are mixtures of other colors. These are, of course, less used names, not basic colors, but they are common in text and might sound weird.

This is because in English you'd say something like "blue-ish green blue" or "red-ish purple," but in Japanese there is no "ish" it's straight out aomidori 青緑 and akamurasaki 赤紫, which sounds like someone's being lazy with their grammar but are actually real words.

Some of these mixes are even kind of funny. My personal favorites are:

English Colors

One last type of words for colors in Japanese, and a very common one in anime and manga, are actually the English ones. Yep. The English ones. Like red and blue, or...

Now, just in the unlikely case you can't remember hearing these words before, I'll give you a moment to recall about burakku buretto ブラックブレット (Black Bullet), the "orange" guy from Code Geass, the goddamn'd Power Rangers, burakku sutaa ブラック☆スター from Soul Eater, burakku and howaito from kekkai sensen 血界戦線 and a very, very, very long list of stands from JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken ジョジョの奇妙な冒険.

But the question stands: why Japan, with such numerous and easy-to-remember names for colors that are very literally just the word for a thing plus the word for color in front of it, would deliberate loan words from English to use as their colors? Don't they have enough names for colors already?!

The answer is, probably, because it looks cooler.

It's no lie that between the Japanese alphabets, the katakana カタカナ looks sharper than kanji 漢字, and it's also no lie that foreign words are more popular with the Japanese than the enigmatic looking kanji words. So much that the word manga 漫画, for example, isn't even what's usually used to say manga in Japanese.

So maybe for a mix of these reasons very weird things can happen.

Even though these English / katakana colors are most commonly found in names of products, inside games and modern stuff like that, and not as common in speech or writing, that's not always the case.

The word pinku ピンク, for example, from the English "pink," is the most common way to say that color in Japanese. Being a word more common than momoiro 桃色 and sakurairo 桜色, which would be the pure Japanese names for pink.

This might be because there weren't many really "pink" things before globalization and modern coloring methods, which then popularize the "pink" color and word in Japan in form of products, paints and clothes. But I wouldn't know, I'm no historian.

Anyway, a fun consequence of this is that some people even end up asking for a way to write pinku ピンク with kanji. Which exemplifies they can't really think of a word in Japanese that's the same as the loaned word. Japanese is a strange language in this aspect!


Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

All comments are moderated and won't show up until approved. Spam, links to illegal websites, and inappropriate content won't be published.

  1. Japanese language is fun. "Midori" as a color is a relatively new word in japan. So, they still call "aoi" different things that we consider green, like green traffic light, cabbage, or green caterpillar (yep. it's aoi). Even new guys are called "aoi", like, "that newbie" or "that green one"...

  2. The link for gin'nezumi is broken, intresting article regardless.