This is possibly not a linguistic question, but a cultural one, however it could have linguistic origins, so I am asking it here...

In English-speaking countries, the "default" color between green and red (e.g. for alerts) seems to be yellow, while in French (at least in France), orange seems much more common than yellow.

Besides the ubiquitous difference in traffic lights, there are also others which seem purely linguistic: Météo France uses the expression alerte orange, even though yellow is also one of the colors in their charts.

Alerte jaune seems almost exclusively used to talk about some liver diseases, which indicates that it is a rarely used expression, while yellow alert is commonly used by military. Conversely, orange alert seems almost exclusively used in a Homeland Security context.

I can find other examples of common day usage, but in informal discussions I have noticed that yellow is not directly associated with warning in French, only orange. It could all be due to traffic lights, but I wonder if there are linguistic roots for the differences.

  • Interesting question. I'd say those lights are definitely orange in actual fact. I just double-checked a text I sent my brother recently and I called one "orange", even though I would definitely accept "yellow" too. Now, riddle me this. I was in Montréal recently. There were traffic lights with six signals; from top to bottom: solid red, solid orange/yellow, solid green, green forward arrow, orange/yellow left arrow, green left arrow. When it's your turn to go, the green forward arrow turns on for a few seconds, then switches to solid green. My question: are the Montréalais out of their minds?
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 15:57
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    The question is confusing and calls from a very long answer.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 15:58
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    See french.stackexchange.com/questions/16077/…
    – jlliagre
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 16:06
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    The French Code la route calls the colour feu orange/jaune (orange/yellow light). You can see check here for example.
    – None
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 16:15
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    @Voléedechênesetrosiers Amber or yellow lights.
    – None
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 18:06

1 Answer 1


Just a few thoughts on the subject, since I don't know much about it, and I haven't discussed it much with anybody nor paid really close attention to it in my life.

In Quebec (I don't know about France), the street lights between green and red are usually called feu jaune, and when someone goes on and is in the middle of the intersection when it turns red, it is commonly referred to as jaune foncé, but this is mostly for fun and you won't find it in official texts nor usually in newspapers or on television. The type of dark yellow (amber, I guess, but this is not a colour people refer to much in French) the street lights are led me, as a child, to call them orange, and I was perhaps six or seven years old when I eventually started calling them what everyone else was calling them, though it was mostly to align myself with the common usage, not because I was starting to consider the colour itself yellow.

For road signs here, orange is for construction, yellow for warning, and school signs went from dark blue to very bright yellow at some point in the early 2000's, something that was a very smart move: the signs are a lot more visible and contrast more with the background, making kids that much safer (well, hopefully...).

As far as alerts go, I am not familiar with any other colour than red and amber in my day-to-day life. Hospitals seem to have consistent codes for different types of emergencies and alerts, as evidenced by these pages from Santé-Montréal, l’Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec or le CHUM. This last one appears to have two extra alert colours (mauve & beige, the list is on page 21), but the other colours represent the same type of events.

Could Quebec be closer to the common usage of English-speaking countries, though, since it is surrounded by a whole continent where English is very dominant? It is possible.

For regular uses of colours in spreadsheets in workplaces, Excel's default highlight colour for cells is yellow, so I guess a lot of people might just stick with it to highlight either important or dubious data. I haven't noticed it would have spilled on daily vocabulary, but who knows if children raised in a world where its usage is ever-present will not naturally lean towards incorporating this in their speech...

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    (pardon the intrusion! and feel free to proofread my posts anytime.)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 19:20
  • Thanks. I'm sure you're improving my English and making me sound better than I would otherwise. Perhaps there would be a place on SE to ask for more details about the suppression of as in not because I was starting to consider the colour itself as yellow? Or maybe you could explain it quickly enough for a comment? Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 19:34
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    To my knowledge, one says "consider it + noun" or "consider it + adjective" but "consider it as + participial adjective" ("consider it as having three legs"). I'm having trouble constructing ngrams for a full comparison that Google doesn't reject as being too long, but here's a start. In general, "consider as" is pretty rare, though in the last few years I've noticed it creeping in where I would only have considered "consider", perhaps due to reckless thesaurusization of "think of.. as" to "consider... as". :)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 20:05
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    @Feelew "Perhaps there would be a place on SE to ask for more details". You might be past the ELL stage but still could have a look, at StoneyB's answer on ELL and start from there. (And it's a start to get to know StoneyB's contributions to ELU and ELL, they're always great). I was more puzzled by Luke Sawczak changing for to since. I found this Q/A on ELU interesting.
    – None
    Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 8:41
  • @Laure Replied in chat!
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 12:56

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