Bright yellow and white-yellow light emitting ZnO-V2O5 polycrystalline powders are synthesized by engineering zinc oxide and different zinc vanadate phases. Emission characteristics strongly depend on different zinc vanadate phases. The bright yellow emission is originated from the 3T2 → 1A1 and 3T1 → 1A1 transitions in the VO4 tetrahedra of zinc vanadate phase. White-yellow emission is the combination of blue and green emissions due to native point defects of ZnO and the yellow and red emission from zinc vanadate. © 2015 Acta Materialia Inc.