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I know that most of "why" questions don't make much sense as far as linguistics are concerned but I'll ask anyway.

I know that き means a tree. いろ means color. It doesn't take a genius to guess that きいろ (lit. tree color) should mean green. But it means yellow. Is there any reason for this?

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For me the colour of a tree is brown (green is the colour of the leaves). And yellow is just a lighter brown. –  SztupY Sep 15 '13 at 19:35

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

There was a word, 木色【きいろ】 "the colour of trees", recorded in the Vocabulário da Língua do Japão. But actually, 黄【き】 on its own already means "yellow".

木 and 黄 are most likely not etymologically related. We know that 木 had a type-2 (乙類) /ki/ in Old Japanese. If we knew that 黄 had a type-1 (甲類) /ki/, then we could definitively say that the two are etymologically unrelated. This diagnostic is the reason why we say that 神【かみ】 and 上【かみ】 are unrelated words: the former has a type-2 /mi/, while the latter has a type-1 /mi/. However, we do know the modern accentuation patterns of 木 and 黄, and they are different:

  • 木 is accented in modern standard Japanese, 黄 is not.
  • 木【きい】 is low register unaccented (→ LH) in modern Kyoto dialect, 黄【きい】 is high register unaccented (→ HH).

Assuming these continue a historical distinction, it seems safe to conclude that 木 and 黄 were not the same word in Old Japanese as well.

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I understand that some researchers reconstruct 乙類 /i/ is as a retracted front vowel [ɨ]. Are there no sound changes which could take an 甲類 /i/ to a 乙類 /i/ or vice versa? There is also the fact that 木 /ki/ alternates with /ko/ in some compounds while 黄 does not. –  jogloran Sep 15 '13 at 14:00
    
In the conjugation of verbs, yes, but not nouns. The fact that /i/ alternates with /o/ in 木 is just stronger evidence for 木 having a type-2 /ki/. –  Zhen Lin Sep 15 '13 at 14:19
    
You say "[a]ssuming these continue a historical distinction", so I have to ask: just how safe is that assumption? –  snailboat Sep 15 '13 at 14:30
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You would have to ask an expert. 日本語国語大辞典 gives historical accentuation information for 黄 (different from 木, of course!) but for some reason it is marked with 「か」 as if the data is unreliable. –  Zhen Lin Sep 15 '13 at 15:35
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In 黄金 it is pronounced as /ko/ but also /ku/, while 木 is not. The 甲乙 distinction, while clear, is nowhere close to being resolved. I don't think it's safe to base speculations on more speculations –  jbcreix Sep 16 '13 at 2:06

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