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I thought bunt was a neutral term that simply means colorful or multicolored. One German-speaking friend recently told me that bunt was not neutral at all and often carried a judgement. For example, ein buntes Kleid can be positive and complimentary, whereas ein buntes Bild is mildly pejorative and describes a riot of colors out of harmony with each other.

My dictionary translates bunt as gaudy, motley, ragtag which would be highly insulting in English when applied to someone's clothing.

What are the precise rules for using bunt?

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uniformity huh that is a rather large generalizaton –  daniel Sep 1 at 20:38
    
I don't think it is the word bunt that carries that judgement, but rather that in certain contexts the fact of being colourful as such is seen as positive or negative. –  celtschk Sep 7 at 13:45
    
Yet, all the etymologies I have seen do not link the English 'bunting' [strings of pendant flags, generally quite colourful] to the German word. –  JohnB Dec 20 at 11:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Well, bunt basically has three definitions:

  1. colorful
  2. varied, diverse
  3. disordered

The English words I've provided as definitions are very spot-on; and though, they are quite general. Depending on context, you can find a better translation; however, you would certainly use a different word in German then, too.
That is, the words you've mentioned are possible translations, but do not reflect the pure meaning. All these words already add some connotation that the context may provide.

Bunt, in general, is neutral. It means colorful.
Using bunt in "a colorful picture" may or may not be pejorative. An example where I consider it (most times) approving is when a child draws a picture which is colorful; as long as it's not too colorful, but then you call it "zu bunt". And something being too much of something is negative in both languages English and German.

With reference to the other two definitions, bunt can also be approving or disapproving. "Ein bunter Nachmittag" (lit. a colorful afternoon) can be both good or bad. Context will clarify.

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The negative connotation related to a picture might also derive from the fact, that, if the only remarkable quality of the picture is that it is colorful, ... well it might not be a good picture after all :) –  Harald Aug 26 at 16:53
    
I'm having trouble understanding the concept of a "colorful afternoon." "Colorful" in English usually means literal colors, although there are some fixed phrases such as a "colorful character." Would a "colorful afternoon" in German refer literally to colors (e.g., a Mexican fiesta) or to a general adventure that is rich in diverse experiences, as your definition (2) above states? –  Dan Leifker Aug 27 at 15:34
    
@DanLeifker Yes, it belongs to definition 2. That's a good definition you've just given "a adventure that is rich in diverse experiences". –  Em1 Aug 27 at 17:51

"Bunt" literally means "multi-colored" or "variegated." Whether or not it is "neutral" depends largely on the social context.

The "Anglo-Saxon" preference is for "uniformity." Under this ethos, attributes like "motley" or "variegated" aren't exactly virtues. That holds true for American English, British English, and German. In this regard, the English and German connotations are similar (and negative).

Such a word might have a more positive connotation in "Latin" or Mediterranean" languages and cultures.

Even so, "bunt" might be considered complimentary in regards to clothing (depending on the wearer), but probably not in art (except "modern" art).

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