Red, white and blue with emotion

In 1969, the linguistic community comprised of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay believed it wasn’t fair to argue that there was a striking difference between the color idioms of various languages, or that one could conclude that every language had worked out its own system in a totally arbitrary way.

There has been much talk in the language world of “linguistic relativity,” which looks at how the structure of a language can alter the method by which its users envisage the world, and the idea of language determining thought. This is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The current view is of a more balanced notion of linguistic relativity, namely that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in nontrivial ways, but that other processes are better seen as subject to universal factors.

There is a famous Korean proverb, kagingaksaek, meaning “for each man a color” (or “many people, many opinions”) and it is certainly and refreshingly true that around the world the use of idioms involving color varies considerably. We can be green with envy, see red or feel a bit blue. Colors have a strong symbolic force, though not everyone agrees on what they stand for. Take green, for example — it certainly seems a constant reference point for the inconstant world of emotions:

Być zielonym z zazdrości (Polish): to be very envious (literally, to be green from envy).

Skide grønne grise (Danish): to be very nervous (literally, to defecate green pigs).

Håbet er lysegrønt (Danish): stay hopeful even when it looks bleak (literally, hope is light green).

Grün vor Stolz (German): very proud (literally, green with pride).

Me sacas canas verdes (Spanish): you are annoying or angering me (literally, you’re giving me green hairs).

Vert de peur (French): very frightened (literally, green from fear).

Ficar verde de raiva (Portuguese): to become furious (literally, to become green with rage).

Purple, however, seems to signify the consequences of excess:

Ponerse morado (Spanish): to be full [of food] (to become purple).

A fi vânăt (Romanian): to be bruised (to be purple).

Ficar roxo de raiva (Portuguese): to become enraged (to turn purple with rage).

Paars van de kou zien (Dutch): extremely cold (purple from the cold).

Whereas brown has bleaker connotations:

Ze bruin bakken (Dutch): to brag or exaggerate (to bake them brown).

Imprensa marrom (Portuguese): the disreputable/tabloid press (the brown press).

Faire quelqu’un marron (French): to cheat on someone (to make someone brown).

Esto pasa de castaño oscuro (Spanish): this is beyond a joke (this goes beyond dark brown).

Pink appears at least to offer some greater cheer:

Pintarlo de color rosa (Spanish): to gild the lily, overdo it (to paint it pink).

Op een roze wolkje zitten (Dutch): to be annoyingly happy in love (to sit on a little pink cloud).

Svæve på en lyserød (Danish): to be in love (to float on a pink cloud).

Pembe yalan (Turkish): a white lie, a “good” lie (a pink lie).

And white often denotes purity:

Poner la mente en blanco (Spanish): to clear your mind of thoughts (to put your mind in white).

Piu bianco non si puo (Italian): blameless, innocent (more white you cannot).

Eine weiße Weste haben (German): to be innocent (to have a white vest).

So with all the constancy suggested, it’s heartening when the same feeling can be expressed through different colors, such as jealousy:

Gelb vor Eifersucht werden (German): to become yellow with jealousy.

Svartsjuk (Swedish): jealousy (black ill).

Groen van jaloezie zien (Dutch): to be very jealous (to see green from jealousy).

There is also the sense of impecunity:

Al verde (Italian): in the green (short of cash).

Estar sin blanca (Spanish): to be broke (to be without white).

Op zwart zaad zitten (Dutch): to be broke (to sit on black seed).

Or sheer anger, which in English we call seeing red:

A se face roşu de mînic (Romanian): to become furious (to turn pink with rage).

Ficar verde de raiva (Portuguese): to become furious (to become green with rage).

Doprowadzić kogoś do białej gorączki (Polish): to make someone angry (to lead someone into a white fever).

I find it rather refreshing that we can’t assume any of the preconceptions of which colors should be suggested to represent a particular emotional framework, and that each country and language has a different history of idioms they are accustomed to employing.