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?

  • 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

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.

  • 1
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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
    – user145
    Sep 16 '13 at 2:06
  • 1
    Zhen Lin, I'm a bit confused by your comment about pitch accent, in that you seem to be including the い from 色{いろ} in with the き from 木{き} and 黄{き}. Presumably that's just for purposes of illustration? May 29 '14 at 5:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.