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I am trying to understand if there are differences in the way people use these three adjectives: farbig, farblich and bunt. So far as I know:

  • bunt = coloured (a dress, a bird …), lively (an afternoon, an event);

  • farbig = coloured (a glass, a person);

  • farblich = coloured.

I am not really able, expect for the specific examples above, which I found on Duden, to distinguish and know when is best to use one or the other adjective. What is the diffence in usage between those three?

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    Farblich is the odd man out because it means pertaining to the colour, in terms of colour. It can’t mean coloured like the other words. – chirlu Jun 18 '15 at 16:35
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First, there is a mildly related question on the topic of when adjectives use -lich and when -ig. So I’ll start with those two.

Farblich, as was noted in the question’s comments, is clearly an odd one out here, and it is the one I would least translate with coloured. The suffix -lich can often be traced back to an old and obsolete word for body; therefore, farblich is a lot more on the topic of the colours present.

Das passt farblich nicht zusammen.
These colours do not match. (literally: This doesn’t fit together by colours)

Farbig uses the suffix -ig which declares the type of something. Thus, if something is farbig, it contains colours. You can specify which colours but it can just generally mean contains a colour, too.

Das eine Bild ist farbig, das andere ist schwarz-weiß.
One of the photos is coloured, the other is black and white.

You can also easily create compounds with farbig, for example zweifarbig, mehrfarbig, … meaning two-coloured, multicoloured etc.

Bunt is closely related to coloured, but actually means colourful. If something only has one colour, no matter how bright it is, I wouldn’t call it bunt. Also, if there are multiple colours present, but they are similar shades of one another, or are maybe all pastellish in tone, I would be hesitant with the word. Something that has two distinct colours (red and yellow, for example) can be called bunt. Note that all of the objects I ‘described’ could have been called farbig (because they have at least one colour).

Bilderbücher oder Bauklötze für Kinder sind meistens sehr bunt.
Picture books or building bricks for children are usually rather colourful.

Der Eisvogel ist ein sehr bunter Vogel — viele Papageien sind aber bunter.
The kingfisher is a pretty colourful bird — many parrots are more colourful, though.

According to TaW’s comment, in the specialised context of printing apparantly bunte Farben can refer to actual colours while unbunte Farben means greyscale — in case you ever come across that.

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  • In the context of printing you can also have 'bunte Farben' and 'unbunte Farben', the latter being grey scale colors. – TaW Jun 19 '15 at 12:57
  • I think you also use "bunt" for a classroom which has several students from different countries – user1474062 Oct 17 '15 at 21:05
  • @user1474062 Well technically yes, but I explicitly did not touch any metaphoric uses. And I actively disprove of using bunt in that context since it implies people have ‘colours’. If anything, I would use bunt for a classroom with many hippies in contrast to schwarz for a classroom with many metalheads. – Jan Oct 18 '15 at 15:50
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Bunt in this context means that something has multiple colors, I think colorful should mostly match it’s meaning. In everyday use, it’s a bit subjective how colorful something needs to be, eg. this building surely is bunt, but this one may not be.
Uses unrelated to colors includes your example of lively,
and Es wird mir zu bunt roughly means This becomes too much for me [so stop that]

Farbig can be used to express what color something has:

My bike is red <=> Mein Fahrrad ist rotfarbig.

although it usually can be omitted in such cases

My bike is red <=> Mein Fahrrad ist rot.

It can express how many colors something has (e.g. zweifarbig).
Lastly, farbig (alone) can also mean not black/white

And farblich expresses stuff related to the color itself, e.g.

Diese Drucke sind farblich verschieden <=> These printouts differ in terms of colors

Opposed to that

Diese Drucke sind verschieden

just means that the printouts are somehow different, and

Diese Drucke sind farbig verschieden

would mean that the difference has a color
(altough people will understand what you mean)

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