Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Colorful language

Squadratomagico asked about the synesthesia (#15 of the previous post) a while ago, and I thought that would be fun to write about, now that people seem to have heard of it enough to think I’m not totally psycho. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a neurological condition that makes some of your senses overlap; in my case, I have “grapheme-color synesthesia,” which means that letters and numbers have distinct colors. I think I suspected for a long time that not everybody saw the world this way; once in a while I’d mention how somebody’s name clashed or how nice it was that their address was the same color as their house, and I’d get weird looks. So I just quit saying things like that, and didn’t think about it much.

I’ve known what to call it since a couple of years ago when I read an article in Smithsonian about it, and thought – OH! – you mean not everybody sees words in color? Cool. I think it happens in about 2% of the population, and different people have it in different forms – for some people, sounds have a distinct color, or colors are associated with smells and even distances, or whatever other combination you can come up with. Those all sound pretty bizarre to me, except of course for my version - of course words have color! How could they not?

I didn’t really talk this out with anyone until a few months ago, when I mentioned it to my talented artistic (and very color-oriented) sister, who did indeed think I was nuts. She asked me a bunch of really interesting questions about it, though, which helped me be more aware of the “rules” of how it worked. For example, each letter and number has a particular color; the color of a word is determined most by the word’s first letter, though vowels tend to make it lighter or darker: an ‘a’ will add a reddish-orange glow; ‘i’ adds a reflective whitish/silver tint; an ‘e’ tends to thin the dominant color, like adding water to paint, and so on. It’s the letter itself and not the pronunciation that matters, so a ‘c’ is sand-colored whether it’s hard or soft.

Wow – I’ve just looked this up for the first time on wikipedia, and people seem to know a lot more about it now than they did a few years ago. (Must be the brain weirdness of choice these days.) One cool thing the entry says is that while individual grapheme-color synesthetes don’t always agree on the same colors, there are some common patterns, such as A being likely to be red. What’s surprising is when I read other people’s accounts and they differ – A is indeed red, but another person reports that S is red, C is yellow, and J is yellow-green. Is this person crazy? That to me is like insisting that the sun is blue. How can S be red? S is beige, and thinking of it as red is just… really disturbingly wrong.

One interesting thing ArtSister asked was whether I thought this would work with other alphabets. And that question was the first thing that really made me understand what this looks like to other people. If I imagine Greek or Russian or Japanese, why, they’re just lines and shapes on paper! How the heck could anybody associate color with that? …Oh. So I guess it’s just the Roman alphabet with me, though I wonder if I really learned another alphabet, whether it would carry over. And it works with the Roman alphabet across different languages, whether or not I understand the word.

Aren’t brains interesting things? I guess if I’m going to have wires crossed in mine, this is a good way to do it; it certainly doesn’t do any damage. The only thing is that I get confused with centuries… for me it’s weird to say that a certain event happened in the 1500s but also in the 16th century, because I remember dates by color, and “1500s” is orangey, while “16” is a dark matte blue. I’ll learn that the Battle of Lepanto happened in an orange time, but when I try to remember it later, that doesn’t tell me if it was the 1500s or the 15th century.

And none of this means I’m artistic or any good at all with color; I can listen to my sister talk about color wheels and values and saturation (and see all of these things in her work), and I don’t begin to comprehend any of it; that’s a whole different language. All I can tell you is what color the word “color” is.

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