Can you imagine a world without colors?
It’d be pretty drab, don’t you think?
So could the process of learning the colors in German—but it doesn’t have to be.
Not only are colors a basic descriptive tool but this is also one of the first topics any learner studies, along with the alphabet and numbers.
You learn them first for a reason: These simple words can be used again and again to make your intentions known, with easy German phrases such as Das blaue Ding (the blue thing), for example.
So for a much more interesting learning experience, we’re sharing some creative ways to learn the basic colors, plus 20 fun German idioms (and some quite unusual ones—like #17) involving colors.
Let’s add some color to your German!
The Basic German Colors
Without getting into complicated shades and paint-store blends, here’s a list of the basic colors in German accompanied by their pronunciations (just click on a color word to hear it pronounced).
- red — rot
- pink — rosa
- orange — orange
- yellow — gelb
- green — grün
- blue — blau
- purple — lila
- gray — grau
- brown — braun
- beige — beige
- white — weiß
- black — schwarz
Notice that many of them are similar to their English translations (except for purple, which is a notoriously rebellious color).
Creative Ways to Practice the German Colors
Sure, you can go old school, cracking open the book and repeating the colors over and over until you’re blau in the face. Or, you can pigment your learning with a bit of fun.
Here are a few simple ideas to add flare to your German color studies.
Instead of reading the names of colors off a piece of paper, look up and name the colors of the shirts of people around you. This is a great way to pass time in a public place, such as a doctor’s office or on a bench outside a train station.
You can even put it into a sentence:
Es gibt ein schwarzes T-Shirt.
(There is a black shirt).
And, best of all, it’s a reason to stare at people.
Ich sehe… (I see…)
Instead of playing the classic game “I Spy,” put a German twist on it. With a friend, say “Ich sehe eine grüne Sache.” (I see a green thing), or whatever the color may be. It’s also a handy chance to practice other vocabulary in German while guessing:
Ist es das Gras?
(Is it the grass?)
Ist es die Busch?
(Is it the bush?)
We all know the “Categories” game, right? It’s the one where everyone tries to list a type of car or a brand of clothing, and the first person who can’t come up with an item in the category loses. Why not turn that concept into a beneficial act of language acquisition?
Go around the circle (or back and forth, if there’s just the two of you), and try to name as many things of the same color as possible. For example, Der Himmel ist blau. (The sky is blue.) Wasser ist blau (Water is blue). Etc.
You can even keep points to add a competitive edge.
20 Fun (and Unusual) German Idioms with Colors
There’s no better way to sound like a native and impress your friends than to throw around the idioms the Germans say themselves. Both for your amusement and education, here are 20 fun ways the Germans use colors in idioms.
1. Bei Mutter Grün
Meaning: To be in nature
Literal Translation: To be with Mother Green
What better way to pass the day than to be outdoors? Although it can’t be confirmed, it’s suspected that Mother Green is a cousin to the English Mother Nature.
2. Das ist im grünen Bereich
Meaning: That’s normal
Literal Translation: That’s in the green area
On old fashion gauges, the arrow points in the green section when the machine is working fine, and in the red when something is wrong. Germany, a nation lustful for order, likes it when things are in the green.
3. Das blaue vom Himmel versprechen
Meaning: To promise the moon
Literal Translation: To promise the blue of the sky
Celestial objects and qualities being generally out of reach of human control, to promise the blue of the sky is just as impractical as promising the moon.
4. Blauer Montag
Meaning: A Monday off from work
Literal Translation: Blue Monday
While English speakers get the “Monday blues,” a blue Monday in German is something to look forward to. However, don’t tell your boss, because usually it means that you’re playing hooky.
5. Er ist Blau
Meaning: He is drunk
Literal Translation: He is blue
Apparently there are lots of words for “drunk” in every language.
6. Ins Schwarze treffen
Meaning: To hit the mark
Literal Translation: To meet in the black
Because profits were generally recorded in the books with black ink, to be in the black is where you’d want to be (or green, if you remember #2).
7. Der rote Faden
Meaning: The common thread
Literal Translation: The red thread
Now when you hear Germans speaking about the red thread, you know it’s not about clothing manufacturing.
8. Da kannst du warten bist du schwarz wirst
Meaning: You can wait there until hell freezes over
Literal Translation: You can wait there until you are black
Presumably it’s not going to happen. Therefore, it’s best not to wait too long. Also note that the informal form of “you” (du) is used in this example. If you’re looking to insult a stranger or a superior, it’s more grammatically correct to say Sie.
9. Er ist ein Schwarzfahrer
Meaning: He is a dodger
Literal Translation: He is a black rider
Although a black rider sounds like something awesome out of an action movie based on a comic book, it’s actually someone who gets on the trains or streetcars without paying for a ticket…which is still something daring and unthinkable in the minds of most Germans.
Meaning: To bleed someone dry (usually concerning money)
Literal Translation: To bleed white
This is a simple variation from the English concept…at least white blood is probably easier to clean up.
11. Eine weiße Weste haben
Meaning: To be innocent
Literal Translation: To have a white vest
Much like the tradition of the wedding dress and the clothing of the good guys in fairy tales, white historically represents innocence and purity. Anyone wearing a white vest must simply be a good guy.
12. Auf keinen grünen Zweig kommen
Meaning: To not reach a goal
Literal Translation: To not arrive on a green branch
We’re looking at a very poetic way of indicating failure. Goethe would be pleased.
13. Jemanden grün und blau Schlagen
Meaning: To beat someone up badly
Literal Translation: To beat someone green and blue
If you saw a man green and blue, it would be obvious that he got it pretty bad.
14. Alles grau in grau Malen
Meaning: To be pessimistic
Literal Translation: Everything gray in gray paint
While if everything were gray there would be less colors to have to learn in German, it still doesn’t make for a happy existence.
15. Durch die rosa Brille schauen
Meaning: To be optimistic
Literal Translation: To look through pink glasses
On the other hand, everything looks better in pink.
16. Gelb vor Neid
Meaning: To be envious
Literal Translation: Yellow with envy
There might be some color-idiom disparity between English and German on this one. Still, I suppose it makes just as much sense to be yellow with envy as it does to be green with it.
17. Ach du grüne neune!
Meaning: Oh my god!
Literal Translation: Oh you green nine!
There must be a reason for such a strange expression, but so far it’s a well-kept secret.
18. Du wirst dein blaues Wunder erleben
Meaning: You’ll get a bad surprise
Literal Translation: You’ll experience your blue wonder.
Although experiencing a blue wonder sounds like a fun thing to happen on any given day, apparently it isn’t. At least now you can recognize when a German is threatening you via idiom.
19. Das ist dasselbe in Grün
Meaning: It makes no difference
Literal Translation: That’s the same in green
Like we said before, if it’s in the green, it’s all good.
20. Das ist graue Theorie
Meaning: That’s just pure theory
Literal Translation: That’s gray theory
Something that’s gray theory (gray because it comes from the brain, which is gray?) isn’t necessarily applicable in an everyday sense, or at least it’s something not proven.
There it is: everything you need to add some color to your German language learning!
Not only will you be able to pick up the colors quickly and enjoy doing so, but can use them in some particularly unusual expressions that will earn the respect of native speakers.
You’ll arrive on that green branch in no time. Good luck!
Ryan Dennis was a Fulbright Scholar and previously taught at Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd. In addition to hating ketchup, British spelling and violence, he writes The Milk House—the only literary column about dairy farming.