Whether it is a daffodil in bloom, the colour of a flame as the light catches it, a lemon, our perception of the sun, an egg yolk, or even the colour of withered grass, the colour yellow is all around us in the natural world. And so it has always been – our linguistic forebears were just as surrounded with yellow as we are today.
So where does the word come from? Well, if we go back to Middle English, we find an enormous variety of forms, raging from yelwe to yeleu, yelewe, yelu, yelou, even yelough, gelou, geolo, among others.
An example is in The Knight’s Tale by Chaucer, from 1385;
With nayles yelwe and brighte as any gold
(with yellow nails, as bright as any gold)
This particular example is readily accessible to the modern reader, of course, the language is not too far removed from today’s.
Yet, if we go back a little further, to Old English, and the forms geolo, geolu and geolwe, this changes. In 1072 in the Old English text Codex Exoniensis (or Exeter Book), in the Riddles we can find:
geolo godwebb (yellow silk)
And in the well-known Old English epic poem Beowulf, dated between the 8th and 11th centuries:
geolo linde (yellow shield)
And even, my favourite Old English example:
ǽger-geolu (egg yolk)
In the last example, the meaning is “egg-yolk”, but it is literally “egg-yellow”, and of course, the word “yolk” comes from geolu, and means “yellow”. In Middle English it was often also spelt yelk.
To find the source of geolu, we take a step back to Proto-Germanic and the form *gelwaz. This form has left its mark in many places – from English yellow, to German gelb, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish gul, Dutch geel, and Icelandic gult.
Of course, the story does not end here. We can trace *gelwaz back to Proto-Indo-European and the root *ghel-, meaning “to shine”. Along with its variant form *ghlo-, this root has given rise to a whole host of vocabulary in numerous languages, especially related to things that are bright and shining, or colours, such as Polish żółty, Ukrainian жо́втий (zhovti), Russian желтый (zeltyy), all meaning “yellow”; another group including Slovenian zelen, Lithuanian zaliuoti, Irish and Scottish Gaelic glas, Polish zielony all meaning “green”; Latvian zālājs, meaning “grassland”; and Welsh glas, Breton, glas, Manx glass, meaning “blue”, as well as the Germanic colour adjectives mentioned above, and other words in English, such as glare and glow. You can read more on this root on the Mashed Radish.
Taking a brief look at Finnish, there is a possible borrowing from its neighbouring Germanic languages, withthe word kulta, which means “gold”, and possibly derives from *ghel-. It should be noted that in Finnish, a /g/ changes to a /k/. There is also kultainen, meaning “golden”, and keltainen; “yellow”. Distant cousins with the same meaning, despite their different forms today.
You probably noticed that Polish has two different colour adjectives from this same root – one relating to yellow, and the other to green. This is no surprise at all, and is a phenomenon we see in a number of languages, where colours are all perceived differently. In Welsh, for example, it is only comparatively recently that there has been a differentiation between blue and green, in Manx pale grey and blue were described using the same word, and speakers of other languages are sometimes amazed to discover that pale green and dark green are described using the same word in English.