Synesthesia (Language and Literature)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Arthur Rimbaud
"I invented the colors of the vowels!" said the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). (Leemage/Getty Images)


In semanticscognitive linguistics, and literary studies, synesthesia is a metaphorical process by which one sense modality is described or characterized in terms of another, such as "a bright sound" or "a quiet color." Adjective: synesthetic or synaesthetic. Also known as linguistic synesthesia and metaphorical synesthesia.

This literary and linguistic sense of the term is derived from the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia, which has been described as "any abnormal 'extra' sensation, often occurring across sense modality boundaries" (Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, 2013).

As Kevin Dann says in Bright Colors Falsely Seen (1998), "Synaesthetic perception, which is forever inventing the world anew, militates against conventionalism."

From the Greek, "perceive together"

Examples and Observations

  • "An expression such as 'warm color' is a classic example of a synesthetic expression. It involves the mapping from the tactile sense referred to by the adjective warm onto the visual referred to by the noun color. On the other hand, warm breeze is not a synesthetic expression, because both warm and breeze refer to the tactile sense, and there is no 'sensory mismatch' in this expression as one sees in warm color."
    (Yoshikata Shibuya et al., "Understanding Synesthetic Expressions: Vision and Olfaction With the Physiological=Psychological Model." Speaking of Colors and Odors, ed. by Martina Plümacher and Peter Holz. John Benjamins, 2007)
  • "I am hearing the shape of the rain
    Take the shape of the tent . . .."
    (James Dickey, opening lines of "The Mountain Tent")
  • Nabokov's Colored Alphabet
    "[T]he color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group [of letters] also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of an o, take care of the whites. . . . Passing on to the blue group there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry h. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother pearl. . . .
    "My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different."
    (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966)
  • "I see a sound. KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK. It looks like KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK. It looks like gravity ripping. It looks like the jets on a spaceship.
    "I catch the sound and it takes me into the cold."
    (Emily Raboteau, The Professor's Daughter. Henry Holt, 2005)
  • James Joyce's Use of Synesthesia
    "Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to."
    (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922)
  • Dylan Thomas's Use of Synesthesia
    "I hear the bouncing hills
    Grow larked and greener at berry brown
    Fall and the dew larks sing
    Taller this thunderclap spring, and how
    More spanned with angles ride
    The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,
    Holier then their eyes,
    And my shining men no more alone
    As I sail out to die."
    (Dylan Thomas, final verse of "Poem on His Birthday")
  • Clear Sounding and Loud Colors
    "Meaning may be transferred from one sensory faculty to another (synesthesia), as when we apply clear, with principal reference to sight, to hearing, as in clear-sounding. Loud is transferred from hearing to sight when we speak of loud colors. Sweet, with primary reference to taste, may be extended to hearing (sweet music), smell ("The rose smells sweet"), and to all senses at once (a sweet person). Sharp may be transferred from feeling to taste, and so may smooth. Warm may shift its usual reference from feeling to sight, as in warm colors, and along with cold may refer in a general way to all senses, as in a warm (cold) welcome."
    (John Algeo and Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 5th ed. Thompson, 2005)
  • Synesthetic Metaphors
    - "Many of the metaphors we use every day are synesthetic, describing one sensory experience with vocabulary that belongs to another. Silence is sweet, facial expressions are sour. Sexually attractive people are hot; sexually unattractive people leave us cold. A salesman's patter is smooth; a day at the office is rough. Sneezes are bright; coughs are dark. Along with pattern recognition, synesthesia may be one of the neurological building blocks of metaphor."
    (James Geary, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See. HarperCollins, 2011)
    - "Synesthetic metaphors are very common. For instance, colors are subdivided into warm and cold colors or provided with acoustic and tactile qualities, such as in the following expressions: loud red, soft blue, heavy dark green, etc."
    (Martina Plümacher, "Color Perception, Color Description, and Metaphor." Speaking of Colors and Odors. John Benjamins, 2007)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Synesthesia (Language and Literature)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Synesthesia (Language and Literature). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Synesthesia (Language and Literature)." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).