Synesthesia and the Synesthetic Experience

** Trends in colored letter synesthesia **


From: Sean Day (daysa@cc.ncu.edu.tw)
Subject: (B31) Trends in colored letter synesthesia
To: daysa@omni.cc.purdue.edu (Synesthesia List)
Date: Fri, 31 May 1996 15:39:48 -0500 (EST)

I have conducted my own research into synesthetically colored letters. The following data come from looking at the statements of 43 separate synesthetes, some found in articles stretching back as far as 1891; others, as of yet unpublished, from some of my current colleagues. Of those who do see letters as colored, some synesthetes report more than one color for a given letter (the letter might, for example, be red with a black border, or green with a yellow stripe); when this occurs, I record both colors as appropriate fractions. Also, it is not at all uncommon for this type of synesthete to not have the entire alphabet colored; for example, only vowels may be colored, or perhaps only about 17 of the 26 letters.

I base my color scheme upon Berlin and Kay's (1969) work. Berlin and Kay claimed that there were no more than eleven basic color terms found in any human language, those colors being: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. Note that pink here is not referenced to red. Berlin and Kay went further to suggest that the order in which color terms enter language is not arbitrary, but runs in a specific sequence as follows in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Berlin and Kay's (1969) Paradigm for the Order in which Colors are Learned

white\          /green \                   | purple
      >-->red-->        >-->blue-->brown-->| pink
black/          \yellow/                   | orange
                                           | gray
Or, as Brown describes it:

[i]f a language has only two colors--and all languages have at least two--they are always white and black; if a language has three colors, the one added is red; if a fourth is added, it will be either green or yellow; when a fifth is added, it will then include both green and yellow; the sixth added is blue; the seventh added is brown; and if an eighth or more terms are added, it or they will be purple, pink, orange, or gray (Brown 1991: 13-14).
A "normal" plot for colored letters, following along Berlin and Kay's (1969) paradigm of eleven colors, would flow between two interacting patterns. First, if all eleven colors are available to be chosen from, distribution should be even between them, with each color accounting for 9% of the total. This, however, would work against a second factor, which Berlin and Kay pointed out, whereby certain colors in the paradigm are more likely to be filled in before others, in the order of black/white first, then red, green/yellow, blue, brown, and gray/orange/pink/purple. Thus, there should be somewhat heavier weighting towards the black/white end of the ordering, and one would expect fewer than 9% for the gray/orange/pink/purple end.

        "A", with N = 38
        black = 3, white = 5, red = 11.5, green = 1, 
                yellow = 6, blue = 2.5, brown = 5.5, 
                purple = 0, pink = 2, orange = 0.5, gray = 1.
        

        "E", with N = 40
        black = 2, white = 8, red = 5, green = 3, 
                yellow = 11, blue = 1.5, brown = 2, 
                purple = 1, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 6.5.

        
        "I", with N = 38
        black = 10.9, white = 10, red = 4, green = 0, 
                yellow = 5, blue = 3.0, brown = 0.3, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 4.

        
        "O", with N = 38
        black = 5, white = 17.5, red = 6, green = 0, 
                yellow = 3.5, blue = 3, brown = 1, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0, orange = 1.5, gray = 0.5.

        
        "U", with N = 36
        black = 3.5, white = 2, red = 1, green = 3,
                yellow = 7, blue = 9, brown = 4.5, 
                purple = 0.5, pink = 1, orange = 0, gray = 4.5.

Although "A" is represented by ten of the eleven colors (there was no case of a purple "A", but, then, as per Berlin and Kay (1969), purple is in the final set of four colors to be added), 11.5 (which makes for 30%) of the 38 examples I recorded placed "A" as being red. This is not overwhelming, but significant enough to be interesting, especially in light of previous studies which also indicated "A" to be red.

With 40 cases recorded, "E" shows itself to be most often yellow (11 instances for 28%) or white (8 cases for 20%). Taken together, that is 19 instances for 48%; almost half of the recorded cases of "E" placed it as a bright color, yellow to white.

The records from "I" are highly significant in that, of 38 instances, 10.9 (29%) indicated "I" to be black, and 10 (26%) indicated "I" to be white. In other words, 20.9 cases (55%) -- well over half of all the synesthetes -- saw "I" as being uncolored, black or white.

"O", however, seems to give the most straightforward information. Out of 38 instances recorded, 17.5 (46%) -- almost half -- indicated that "O" was white. This concords well with Baron-Cohen et al.'s (1993) findings regarding the prevalence of white O's among synesthetes.

"U" seems to be the one vowel that spans almost all (out of 36 instances, there was no orange) of the basic colors somewhat evenly. However, there does seem to be a slight tendency for "U" to be dark-colored.

Thus, while I must stress that they are at best generalities, among synesthetes who see letters as colored, most often "A" is red, "E" yellow/white, "I" black/white, and "O" white, whereas "U" cuts across the eleven basic colors.

As for the consonants, few of the previous studies that have been done even bother about them. Of the handful which do address them, consonants are generally taken whole as a group and dismissed with the statement that no particular color trend emerges for any particular consonant, and that, in general, the consonants are paler and grayer than the vowels. My own research indicates that it is indeed the case that, in general, the consonants are paler and far more often gray; however, a look at each consonant letter individually reveals that a handful of them do actually show color trends to greater or lesser degrees.

My research, based upon the same set of 43 synesthetes, reveals the following:

        "B", N = 27
        black = 1, white = 4, red = 2.5, green = 3, 
                yellow = 1, blue = 5.5, brown = 4, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0.5, orange = 0, gray = 4.5.
        "B" seems to be spread fairly evenly, with the predictable
        low-to-zero percentage of purple and orange.

        
        "C", N = 28
        black = 1, white = 6.5, red = 0, green = 1.5, 
                yellow = 9.5, blue = 4.5, brown = 0, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 5.
        Of 28 instances, 9.5 (34%) of the letter "C" are yellow.  21
        of the instance (75%) fall within yellow/white/ gray.

                
        "D", N = 30
        black = 3.5, white = 4.5, red = 3, green = 2, 
                yellow = 3.5, blue = 1, brown = 3,
                purple = 0, pink = 1, orange = 1.5, gray = 7.
        "D" is fairly even, with the typical high percent of gray.

        
        "F", N = 29     
        black = 4.34, white = 1, red = 2, green = 2.5, 
                yellow = 1, blue = .33, brown = 8.83, 
                purple = 2, pink = 22, orange = 1, gray = 4.
        "F" is predominantly brown, with 8.83 (30%) of the 29
        instances that color.  Note that the next two most common
        colors are black and gray.

        
        "G", N = 29
        black = 1, white = 4, red = 2.5, green = 6.5, 
                yellow = 2, blue = 0.5, brown = 5, 
                purple = 1, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 6.5.
        "G" has a somewhat high rate of green and brown (as well as
        gray), but other color are present enough to make me feel
        that no particular color stands out significantly.

        
        "H", N = 28
        black = 3.5, white = 0, red = 3, green = 1.5, 
                yellow = 2, blue = 0.5, brown = 7, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0, orange = 1, gray = 9.5.
        "H" has the strong (34%) tendency for gray typical of the
        consonants, but also has a strong (25%) trend toward brown. 
        Note the absence of white.

        
        "J", N = 26
        black = 5.84, white = 1, red = 4.5, green = 0.5, 
                yellow = 2.5, blue = 0.83, brown = 6.33, 
                purple = 1, pink = 0, orange = 0.5, gray = 3.
        Although the distribution is not very even, no one
        particular color stands out for "J".

        
        "K", N = 26
        black = 4, white = 1, red = 2, green = 3, 
                yellow = 2, blue = 3, brown = 4,
                purple = 0.5, pink = 0, orange = 1, gray = 5.5.
        "K" presents a fairly even distribution, with a high amount
        of gray and an unsurprising lack of pink.

        
        "L", N = 25
        black = 3.5, white = 2, red = 1.5, green = 1, 
                yellow = 5, blue = 3, brown = 3, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 6.
        "L" does not tend toward any one particular color; however,
        with 25 instances, notice the absence of purple, pink, and
        orange, yet the high presence of gray.

        
        "M", N = 29
        black = 2, white = 1, red = 5, green = 4, 
                yellow = 0, blue = 6.5, brown = 4.5, 
                purple = 1.5, pink = 1.5, orange = 0, gray = 3.5.
        "M" seems fairly well distributed, only slightly unevenly,
        with no one particular color standing out.  How-ever, note
        the somewhat odd absence of yellow and the low rate of black
        and white.

        
        "N", N = 27
        black = 1, white = 2, red = 3, green = 4, 
                yellow = 0, blue = 3, brown = 4, 
                purple = 0, pink = 1, orange = 1, gray = 8.
        "N" is fairly gray (30%), but otherwise somewhat even. 
        Note, however, that, like "M", there is again an absence of
        yellow together with a low rate of black and white.

        
        "P", N = 28
        black = 2, white = 4, red = 1, green = 3.5, 
                yellow = 2, blue = 2, brown = 4, 
                purple = 0.5, pink = 0, orange = 1, gray = 8.
        "P" is fairly even, with the typical high percent of gray.

        
        "Q", N = 23
        black = 1, white = 5, red = 2, green = 3, 
                yellow = 4.5, blue = 3, brown = 1.5, 
                purple = 0, pink = 0.5, orange = 0.5, gray = 2.
        "Q" is somewhat unusual in its low percentage of gray.  The
        colors are somewhat evenly distributed, considering the low
        number of instances (23); however, white and yellow seem to
        be a little prevalent.
        

        "R", N = 28
        black = 6, white = 0, red = 8.5, green = 4, 
                yellow = 1, blue = 1.5, brown = 4, 
                purple = 0, pink = 1, orange = 0, gray = 2.
        "R" shows a strong (30%) tendency towards red, with a
        smaller but perhaps significant shading towards black.  Note
        the total absence of white and the quite low level of gray.

        
        "S", N = 27
        black = 0, white = 4.5, red = 2, green = 2, 
                yellow = 9, blue = 2, brown = 0, 
                purple = 0, pink = 1, orange = 2, gray = 4.5.
        "S" is highly unusual.  Of 27 synesthetes, a third of them
        (33%) report seeing "S" as yellow.  Also unusual, note the
        odd total absence of black and brown, yet the presence of
        white (compare to "M" and "N" above).

        
        "T", N = 25
        black = 5, white = 2, red = 3, green = 5, 
                yellow = 4, blue = 0, brown = 2,
                purple = 0, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 4.
        "T" does not show much of any trend, nor anything too
        unusual.

        
        "V", N = 26
        black = 0, white = 2, red = 0.5, green = 3, 
                yellow = 1, blue = 4.5, brown = 2.5, 
                purple = 2.5, pink = 1, orange = 0, gray = 9.
        "V" is slightly unusual in its absence of black.  Other than
        the somewhat higher than usual rate of gray, no trend is
        seen.

        
        "W", N = 22
        black = 4.5, white = 0, red = 1.5, green = 4, 
                yellow = 1, blue = 1.5, brown = 5, 
                purple = 0.5, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 4.
        "W" does not show any specific trend, although the
        distribution is slightly uneven (however, the number of
        instances, 22, is rather low).  Note, however, the absence
        of white.

        
        "X", N = 23
        black = 2, white = 1, red = 4, green = 0.5, 
                yellow = 3, blue = 1.5, brown = 4, 
                purple = 0.5, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 6.5.
        "X" does not show any significant trend, nor anything
        unusual.

        
        "Y", N = 26
        black = 2, white = 2, red = 1, green = 1.5, 
                yellow = 7.5, blue = 2.5, brown = 0.5, 
                purple = 1, pink = 0, orange = 0, gray = 8.
        Although "Y" has a quite strong (31%) tendency toward gray,
        it also has a quite significant (29%) inclination to yellow. 
        "Y" seems to be mainly yellow and gray; compare this to "E",
        which is mostly yellow, white, and gray.

        
        "Z", N = 26
        black = 2, white = 1, red = 3.5, green = 2.5, 
                yellow = 2.5, blue = 2, brown = 5, 
                purple = 1.5, pink = 0, orange = 0.5, gray = 5.5.
        "Z" does not show a trend toward any particular color, nor
        does it show anything unusual.

        
        *********************************************************
        Baron-Cohen, Simon, John Harrison, Laura H. Goldstein, and
                Maria Wyke.  1993.  "Coloured Speech Perception: Is
                Synaesthesia What Happens When Modularity BreaksDown?" 
                Perception; volume 22: 419-426.

        
        Berlin, Brent, and Paul Kay.  1969.  Basic Color Terms:
                Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: U of
                California P.

        
        Brown, Donald.  1991.  Human Universals.  New York: McGraw-
                Hill.

       

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