Color associations

Posted: 13 Agustus 2010 in colour language

Color associations
by Olga Dmitrieva
Tomsk State University, Russia
Red, blue, yellow etc. are not just colors. These are emotions, feelings, memories,
reflections, associations. They play a very important role of sings or symbols. Seeing a color or
thinking about color produces a certain reactions in our mind. If this association is quite stable
and regular it becomes a part of the semantic structure of the color-word. Close Indo-European
languages such as Russian and English have more or less similar system of color terms.
Nevertheless Russian and English color terms denoting the same colors might have different
components in their semantics. One of the best ways to find out what is universal and what is
nationally specific in how we react to color is to perform a psycholinguistic experiment. The
psychologists believe that there is a mental model of color which is always presenting in our
mind, so seeing the color or thinking about it doesn’t make any difference in terms of our
psychological reaction, since when we think about certain color our mind immediately finds the
corresponding color model. Hence we may use the color terms as well as color itself as a
stimulus in the experiment. In the course of the experiment Russian and English speaking
respondents were asked to write all the associations which occurred to them as a reaction to
seeing the following color terms:
White / Beliy
Black / Cherniy
Red / Krasniy
Green / Zelieniy
Yellow / Zheltiy
Blue / Siniy
Goluboy (light blue – only for Russian respondents)
Brown / Korichneviy
Grey / Seriy
Pink / Rozoviy
Orange / Oranzheviy
Purple / Fioletoviy
The technique of “free association” was used as the most effective way to reveal the
spectrum of possible associations to the color terms: the respondents were not given any time or
subject restrictions – the number of associations and their domain was not limited. There were 20
Russian and 17 English respondents who took part in the experiment. As a stimuli we chose so
called basic color terms – a number of the color-words which were considered to be “basic” by
the native speakers. The criteria for identifying basic color terms are still not quite clear although
any native speaker can name them without any difficulty. The composition of the Russian and
English basic color terms is quite similar except for Russian goluboy (light blue). There is no
corresponding English color term since English blue covers both light blue and dark blue color
The final purpose of the experiment is to define the components of the semantic structure
of the color terms and to establish differences and similarities in Russian and English color
As a result of free association method the findings are very diverse. For an adequate
interpretation of the results an appropriate classification is needed. To do this we first of all
divide all the findings into universal and situational categories.
The universal associations are usually expressed with a help of one or two words. They are
highly frequent and as a rule have no correspondence to the personal experience of the
respondent (e. g. sun, happy).
The situational associations are much more rare, they are often more extended – a phrase
or a sentence – and have a straight connection with personal feelings and memories of the
respondent (e. g. my living room – my favorite color, the towels my mom gave me when I went to
college – they were hot pink).
The universal associations are the most important for us since they show a stable and
regular reaction to the color term and therefore they serve as a significant component of the
semantic structure of the word. The more universal associations a color term evokes the richer
semantics it has. The color terms with the richest semantics can be used in a larger number of the
contexts and consequently play a greater role in the national language.
Secondly, all the associations may also be divided into abstract (e. g. anger) and concrete
(e. g. blood) categories.
Thirdly we have material, sensory and emotional associations. Material associations
denote objects (e. g. apple). Sensory associations deal with the process of perception (e. g. warm
– tactile perception, bright – visual perception). Emotional associations convey feelings,
emotions (e. g. passion, shame).
As an example we will analyze the associations for the word red / krasniy. In the following
table the whole set of red-related associations is presented. Despite the smaller number of
English speaking respondents as compare to Russian, they gave more associations to red then the
Russian respondents.
Associations Number
Associations Number
Stop 5 Krov (blood) 7
Hot 5 Stast (passion) 5
Anger (angry) 4 Flag, znamia (flag) 4
Blood 4 Opasnost (danger) 3
Danger 4 Bik (bull) 3
Fire 3 Zvet svetafora (traffic light) 2
Roses 3 Agressia (aggression) 2
Heat 2 Yabloko (apple) 2
“In the red” 2 Zhar (heat)
Apple, juicy apple 2 Predatelstvo (betrayal)
Bright Privlekatelnost (appeal)
Colorful Bol (pain)
Barns Pydjak (jacket)
Squirrels Sovrashenie (seducing)
Rubies Otkrovenie (revelation)
Warm Pobeda (victory)
Serp i molot (Sickle and
White Lubov-morkov (love)
Life Korrida (corrida)
Hot woman in dress Krasota (beauty)
Bullfighter Prazdnichnost (holiday)
Wine Ogon (fire)
Love Zvety (flowers)
Spicy Mak (poppy)
Exclamation Zapret (prohibition)
Caution Zrelost (maturity)
Vibrant Stop
Sex Extaz (ecstasy)
Roses left on a
Zhelanie videlitsiy, privlech
vnimanie (a desire to attract
attention, be notable)
Samouverennost (selfassurance)
Bad Revoluzia (revolution)
Pretty Zakat (sunset)
Communism Deviza (lass)
Roza (rose)
Shame Pomidor (tomato)
Scarlet letter Yad (poison)
Zapretniy plod (forbidden
Red Square Platie (dress)
Passion Pil (ardour)
Emergency Znachimost (magnitude)
Life savers
Jelly bean
No, negative
Felt pen
Coffee bean
Kidney bean
We consider associations to be universal if they appear in the list more then once or they
appear both in Russian and English lists. As a result of this “universality” has two levels:
“national” and “international” universality. Looking for the Russian-English corresponding
universal associations we were taking into consideration not only full lexical equivalents, but
also the words belonging to the same semantic field. For example we have the words bik and
bull which are full lexical equivalents. However there are also words bullfighter and korrida
(corrida) which to our opinion belong to the same semantic field. So we put all these words into
the universal associations group. The same is true with the English association stop and Russian
zvet svetafora (traffic light). These words have different lexical expressions but the same
semantic meaning – that is why they both go to the universal associations. Other examples of this
are communism and revoluzia (revolution), sex and sovrashenie (seducing), exclamation and
zhelanie videlitsiy, privlech vnimanie (a desire to attract attention, be notable), restriction and
zapret (prohibition).
If the association appears in the situational group, in most cases it means that a respondent
has some personal reactions to the color according to his/her character, temper, experience,
social, age and educational position. Nevertheless in certain cases knowing the cultural
background of the respondent we are able to define a specifically national association. For
example, Russian Serp I Molot (Sickle and Hammer) refers to one of the very popular Soviet
emblem symbolizing the union of workers and peasants.
In the following two tables you can see the categorized Russian and English associations
for red.
Universal Situational
Concrete Abstract Abstract Concrete
Material Sensory Danger Life Sensory Material
Blood Hot “in the red” Caution White Barns
Fire Heat Exclamation Vibrant Spicy Squirrels
Roses Warm Communism Emergency Siren Rubies
Apple Burning Sex No, negative Bright Grapefruit
Bullfighter Sunset Restriction Autumn Colorful Hot woman in dress
Bull Stop Attention Wine
Pretty Alarm
Roses left on a
Emotional Emotional Scarlet letter
Anger Shame Red Devils
Love Bad Red Square
Aggressive Cherries
Passion Life savers
Jelly bean
Felt pen
Coffee bean
Kidney bean
Universal Situational
Concrete Abstract Abstract Concrete
Material Sensory
Sensory Material
Krov (blood)
Zvet svetafora
(traffic light)
Bol (Pain)
Bik (bull) Zhar (heat)
Yabloko (apple) Zakat (sunset)
Serp i Molot
(Sickle and
Mak (poppy)
Ogon (fire)
Deviza (lass)
Rosa (rose)
Flag, znamia
Yad (poison)
Emotional Emotional
vnimanie (a
desire to attract
attention, be
Pil (ardour)
Extaz (ecstasy)
Strast (passion)
Now we are able to paint the semantic portrait of red based of the results of our psycholinguistic
· For both Russian and English respondents red is associated with such objects as
blood, fire, bull, apple and rose. In general there is a tendency to associate red with
fruit and flowers. Examples of these are grapefruit, cherries, pomidor (tomato),
roses left on the mountain (a romantic turn), zveti (flowers), mak (poppy) but apple
and rose have the biggest number of votes. Also red has a strong associative
connection with the semantics of bull fight. We recorded such associations as bull,
bullfighter, korrida (corrida), bik (bull). The reason for the existence of such
associations is the following: first of all, the bullfighters use red rags to enrage a
bull. Then, bull fight implies danger, blood and passion which are also very strong
parts of the semantics of red.
· As to sensory associations, the strongest reaction is heat and the variations hot,
warm, burning. However, this association is more important for the English
speaking audience. Hot has the second frequency place in the English associations
list, besides there are other words from the same semantic field (heat, warm,
burning) whereas Russian respondents gave the corresponding reaction – zhar
(heat) only once. Another visually perceived phenomenon traditionally associated
with red is sunset – the corresponding word appears in both Russian and English
· Concerning abstract associations, the most frequent are danger, beauty, sex,
communism, a desire to attract attention and stop. To the semantic field of beauty
we ascribe pretty, privlekatelnost (appeal), krasota (beauty). To the English sex
corresponds Russian sovrashenie (seducing) which also has a sex related meaning
yet with a negative connotation. Semantics of communism is expressed in English
communism and Russian revoluzia (revolution). Connection of the red color and
this political direction is obvious and in Russia this connection is stronger then else
where. Also red is conceived by both nations as a color which attracts attention,
stands out. This is the less uniform semantic field in the list: from the Russian side
this meaning is expressed by a phrase zhelanie videlitsia, privlech vnimanie (a
desire to attract attention, be notable). From the English side this is exclamation
which is also a way to attract attention. And finally red is strongly tied with a
semantics of negation, denial, restriction, prohibition. These are such associations
such as stop, restriction, negative, no, zapret (prohibition), zvet svetafora (traffic
light), zapretniy plod (forbidden fruit).
· As regards the emotional abstract associations a striking unanimity is observed:
both by Russian and English speaking respondents red was associated with such
emotions as love, passion and aggression. Russian representation of love concept
in this case has an ironical connotation – lubov-morkov is a set expression literally
translated as love and carrots. The combination of such a romantic thing as love
and such a prosaic thing as carrots gives the expression an ironical hint. Plus the
rhyme makes it sound easy and frivolous.
So we assume that the “international” semantic structure of the color term red
consists of the following components: blood, fire, apple, rose, sunset, bull fight, heat,
danger, beauty, sex, communism, outstanding, stop, love, passion, aggression.
· However we may observe certain differences in Russian and English semantics of
red. For English respondents for instance the strongest components of the red
semantics are stop, hot, anger, blood, danger, fire, roses, heat, “in the red”, apple. In
this list only blood, danger and apple seem to be of the same importance for the
Russian respondents. The strongest English association for red is stop that is a traffic
light. The general respect for rules and rules of the road as well is much higher in the
western countries. While in Russia to cross a street when the red light is on is not a
big deal. So the reflex red-stop is not as strong and consequently the corresponding
component is not fully developed in the semantic structure of Russian krasniy (red).
· English idiom “in the red” has no analogue in Russian language therefore red
means being in debt only for English speaking person. There is no such component in
semantics of krasniy.
· Also we should underline that the semantic structure of red is mostly formed by
the fact that this color is widely used in social services such as fire-truck, emergency
etc. as an emblem of urgency, danger, alarm. From this come the associations
caution, alarm, emergency, life savers, siren whereas Russian respondents pay no
attention to the social role of red.
· The strongest Russian associations for krasniy are krov (blood) and strast
(passion). The semantics of Russian krasniy was also powerfully influenced by the
fact that the ruling, communistic party, was for long time using red as an official
political and governmental symbol. Therefore there are a large number of associations
belonging to the semantic field communism: flag, znamia (flag), pobeda (victory),
Serp I Molot (Sickle and Hammer), revoluzia (revolution).
· The great role in the process of developing a semantic structure of the color term
krasniy played the history of this word, its etymology. Word krasniy hasn’t been used
to denote the color red for a long time. Originally krasniy meant beautiful, attractive
and as to the color term red completely different lexems were used (e. g. chervleniy,
bagrianiy). Due to some linguistic changes the original meaning of krasniy was
replaced by the color meaning, but the semantics of beauty still forms a considerable
part of the meaning of krasniy. This is proved by the following associations:
privlekatelnost (appeal), krasota (beauty), prazdnichnost (holiday), deviza (lass).
Krasnay deviz is a set expression used mostly in the folklore. In this expression
krasniy is still used in its first meaning – beautiful, therefore krasnay deviza is not a
red girl but bonny lass or fair maiden.
· There is also an interesting background for the association pidjak (jacket). In the
times of perestroika when so called nouveau riche or noviy russkiy (new-Russian)
began to appear in the country by some reasons the red-colored jackets were very
popular among them. With time it became a symbol of a nouveau riche – a person
almost without any education or connections who became very rich in no time thanks
to his own smartness, persistence and unscrupulousness.
So we may conclude that semantic structure of the color term red / krasniy has quite similar
components both in Russian and English languages. Red is associated with the most intense
emotions and states which vary from positive, pleasant – love, passion, sex, beauty, adour – to
negative and unpleasant – aggression, danger, pain, betrayal, seducing. Red is perceived as hot,
bright, loud (siren) and spicy which also implies a certain intensity of tactile, visual, taste and
auditory perceptions. Both languages consider blood, fire, sunset, rose and apple to be the best
representatives of the red color in nature. Concerning the national differences in the semantic
structure of red they are caused by cultural, political or purely linguistic factors. So we assume
that color in general and red color in particular is able to evoke certain kinds of material,
abstract, sensory and emotional associations which stay quite stable in both the Russian and
English languages. Our experiment proves that the nature of color is more complicated than just
a wave-length. It contains emotional and symbolic components as well as purely visual ones.

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