Synaesthesia in Chinese

OK, first of the series of Synaesthesia Conference lectures that I’ll be writing up. Today, I’ll be talking about a four year study conducted by Julia Simner (of University of Edinburgh) and her team. In their study, Simner and her colleagues looked at grapheme-colour synaesthesia, comparing the experiences of English synaesthetes (which are hugely studied) to the experiences of Chinese synaesthetes (who are barely studied at all).

Where to start? Some general factoids about grapheme-colour synaesthesia. About 1% of the population are estimated to have it. This phenomena is where letters and numbers illicit a colour experience in the synaesthete. These experiences follow non-random rules – the same letters seem to always illicit the same colour experience, like “A” always being green, for example.

As for words, many synaesthetes find that whole words are coloured as a whole, rather than each individual letter being coloured. The way words are coloured seems to vary in three main ways:

  1. Some synaesthetes simply see each letter coloured individually (as per their own internal consistencies) – for example, “CAT” would be seen as BLUE-GREEN-RED (or whatever)
  2. Some synaesthetes find words are coloured by their initial letter – e.g. “CAT” would be BLUE, as “C” is blue for them
  3. Some synaesthetes have their words coloured by their initial vowel – again, “CAT” would be GREEN, as the initial vowel is usually green

There are two main theories as to what influences the colours of different letters and words. One is the semantic influence – this is where the unconscious meaning pinned to words and therefore letters determines what colour the letters will be. For example, we might associate “D” with dogs (A is for apple, B is for bird… I’m sure you were taught the alphabet in a similar fashion). Well, dogs are brown (usually), so maybe this is why some synaesthetes experience D as being brown.

The other theory is the frequency effect – more common letters are more common colours. For example, A is often red or green, whereas X is often something exotic like purple or gold. This isn’t too much of a surprise, either.

Hmm, what next…? Maybe a bit of info about Chinese languages (assume we’re talking about Mandarin throughout, but the rules probably cross over to Cantonese). Bear with me – my knowledge of Chinese is not great.

Chinese languages are ideographic (well, almost. We won’t get into that argument here) – they don’t have alphabets, so no letter units. They consist of word unit characters. There are two phonetic spelling systems (Pinyin and Bopomo), which Chinese children may be taught, in order to help them to speak the language before learning to write the script (which is intensely complicated).  Pinyin uses a combination of Westernised spellings (for pronunciation) and a number (that indicates tone – Chinese languages are tonal, which means, depending how you say a word, it can have multiple meanings. Phew.)

Simner and her team wondered if this Pinyin system could function in a similar way to English in terms of its effects on synaesthetes – does the initial “letter” (or sound) or vowel sound effect the overall consistency in colour experience?

Well, yes and no. Their study showed that if native Chinese speakers were given the Pinyin phonetic spelling of a word character, they would experience the colours in a consistent manner similar to English synaesthetes – words beginning with a “y” sound would all be green, etc. etc. However, if they were given just traditional Chinese characters to look at (with no Pinyin) these consistencies did not carry over. Hmm. Back to square one.

Chinese script itself is made up of morphemes called “radicals”. Each character contains a semantic radical (which conveys meaning) and a phonetic radical (which tells you how the word should be pronounced). These radicals can be on either side of the character, and again, location affects meaning (I think you’re beginning to understand why Chinese script is so hard to learn…)

So, does the semantic or phonetic radical colour the character overall? Or do neither of them do this?

Simner and her colleagues found three variables – hue, saturation and brightness of colour experience. It seems that Chinese synaesthetes have a more subtle colour experience than Western synaesthetes – the radical on the left accounts for the hue, the semantic radical accounts for saturation, and the radical on the right for brightness. Weird.

The frequency effect occurs in Chinese, too – common characters (and radicals) are more common colours.

And that… is about all that I can compute. If you want to know more, please head on over to Julia Simner‘s profile page on Edinburgh Uni’s website, and feel free to send her your questions! 🙂


2 thoughts on “Synaesthesia in Chinese

  1. Interesting! I would have thought the grapheme/color thing was much more common than 1% of the population. A, by the way, is RED (it is oddly irritating to see it described as green…).

    I find that it’s not always a case of the word being colored by the initial letter or initial vowel. Sometimes, yes. But if there’s a “strong” letter later in the word, it wins out over the rest. It leads to strange things like preferring the British spelling “grey” over “gray” because A is the strongest letter, and any word it shows up in is mostly red.

    Perhaps Chinese Synesthetes have a more subtle and varied experience because it helps them to remember such a vast number of characters.


    • Ah, red for you though. By the very nature of synaesthesia, I was bound to irritate someone 🙂 not everyone sees A as red.

      The most common estimates for all types of synaesthesia say 2% of the population, and grapheme-colour accounts for about half of those.

      As for word colouring – the initial letter/initial vowel thing is just the most commonly reported colour pattern – it’s not universal, and I never said as much 🙂 if you experience things differently, I know research teams that would love to hear from you! The grey/gray distinction that you’ve described does seem to fit the initial vowel pattern that I described though.

      Thanks for your comments.


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