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Colors in German – How does the grammar work? Posted by on Jun 21, 2019 in Grammar, Language, Prepositions

There is some weird stuff going on with the Grammatik (grammar) of Farben (colors) in German. Sometimes they are capitalized. Sometimes not. What are the rules? And how can you determine what to do? Let’s have a look.

Substantivierung

Image by Tony Ross at Unsplash.com

As a small reminder, Substantive (nouns) are written with a capital first letter. This is pretty straightforward, but in some cases, this can be confusing.

Farben are a group of words that are normally used as Adjektive (adjectives), and so they are not written with a capital letter. Like this:

Der braune Stuhl gefällt mir nicht.

(I don’t like that brown chair.)

Der rote Himmel kündigt die Nacht an.

(The red sky announces the night.)

Easy. Adjektive are never capitalized. But what if you talk about a Farbe? What if you want to describe some of its Eigenschaften (properties)? Then this happens:

Dieses Blau gefällt mir sehr gut.

(I really like this blue.)

Warum ist Rot die Farbe des Kommunismus?

(Why is red the color of communism?)

Diese Schuhe sind grau.

(These shoes are grey.)

Now, the color has a capital letter! Why? Because we went through Substantivierung (“substantivization”, or perhaps “nounization”). This means that we made a noun out of an adjective. Pretty abgefahren (rad), huh?

How can you be sure that you went through Substantivierung? Check if you can put an Artikel (article) or Präposition (preposition) before the Farbe. For example:

Ich finde, Blau passt sehr gut zu der Hose.

Ich finde, (das) Blau passt sehr gut zu der Hose.

(I think the blue matches the pants very well.)t

Wenn zum Beige dieser Hose Blau passt, dann geht Rot aber auch.

(If blue matches the beige of these pants, then red also works.)

As you can see, these examples show that the Artikel or the possibility of an Artikel capitalizes the Farbe. Präpositionen (like zum and zur) also lead to a capital letter, because, really, these are simply short for zu dem (zum) and zu der (zur). So any variations on das that are possible lead to a capital letter.

Conversely, if you are not sure you are dealing with an Adjektiv, you can also ask the question: wie? (how?) For example:

Der rote Himmel kündigt die Nacht an.

Wie ist der Himmel? (How is the sky?)

rot (red). The answer is the color – and so it is not capitalized.

Eigennamen

There is an Ausnahme to this rule, and those are Eigennamen (own names). For example, the Red Sea is capitalized in English, as it is an Eigenname. The same in German, where it is called (das) Rote Meer.

Are there special rules for colors in your language? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, and I am half Dutch and half German. I was on exchange in the United States, and I really enjoyed that year! So in that sense, I kind of have three nationalities... I love all of them!


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