Chinese Synesthesia

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Xiaoyan (Coco) Li, a native Chinese speaker with synesthesia (self identified, never formally tested), happened to come across this Language Log post:

"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)

She wrote to me saying that she experiences some of what Leo Fransella (quoted in the earlier post) referred to as "'non-trivial' Chinese synaesthesia".  For him "trivial" Chinese synesthesia is associated with or stimulated by the letters of the Pinyin used to spell Chinese words, not from the characters used to write them.

Coco explains [the romanizations and additions in square brackets are by VHM]:

My synaesthesia tends to be less phoneme-color related, but almost completely grapheme-color based. For Chinese, the characters' colors are somewhat affected by their radicals. A more trivial example of this would be that characters with ⺮ [bamboo radical] are more likely to be green-hued, since this radical has the meaning of plants. A less direct relationship would be that characters with the radical 辶 ["walk"], which is grey by itself, are also likely to be more grey than their other components. 这 ["this"] is a faded pastel yellow, whereas 文 ["script; literature"] is a more saturated orange-yellow, although both characters are not direct grey scales of another.

I also took Japanese, so I'll talk a bit about how synaesthesia affects how I see Japanese kana versus kanji. I haven't seen any kanji that have different colors than their Chinese counterparts, though traditional Chinese characters tend to be darker/more saturated than simplified Chinese characters — 爱 (aì) ["love"] is a less saturated red than 愛 (ai あい), but 他 (tā) [third person pronoun] and 他 (hoka ほか) ["other"] are the same color. However, kanas have distinct colors that may differ between hiragana and katakana depending on how different they look, and these colors can differ from their kanji as well. For example, kaze かぜ ["wind"] is red/rust (か) and dull military green (ぜ ) whereas 風 (kaze) ["wind"] is a bright green character, and kaze カゼ ["casein"] is yellow (カ) and transparent green (ゼ, similar to ぜ because of their visual similarity). When I hear kaze かぜ I think of the bright green, however, because the kanji is the first grapheme representation that "pops into my head" rather than its kana. I could also talk about how kanas that are voiced/unvoiced (for the lack of better generalization for the dots and circles on kanas) change color if anyone is interested. Furthermore, vowels tend to be the same colors across languages — a (English/French etc.), as well as the pronunciation of 啊 and あ, are all red).

Since I do not experience this type of graphemic synesthesia, it would be hard for me to comment meaningfully on Coco's observations, but perhaps there are readers who do experience such sensations who may wish to weigh in from their own standpoint.


  1. Nanani said,

    July 27, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    I have a form in which I "see" colours associated with numbers, specifically digits, in a one-to-one correspondence for the digits 0-9.
    I am also fluent in Japanese and do sometimes see the colors with numbers in kanji (一から十まで) but this effect is not as consistent as it is with the 0-9 numerals.

    In any case, my synesthesia is fairly mild. I am far more likely to perceive the colors in otherwise uniform text compared to, say, a colourful billboard or the numbers on an athlete's jersey.

  2. Frank L Chance said,

    July 28, 2017 @ 9:30 am

    It would be interesting for Ms. Li to comment on the link (or lack of it) between the perceived color of the kana and the perceived color of the kanji from which the kana were derived.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

    From a German friend:

    Interesting Language Log about synesthesia.

    I had lived with that my entire life until I was in my 70s had no clue that this was a "condition". Instead, up to that time I assumed it had something to do with the fact that I was always allowed in Dad's atelier (art studio) — but I was not to talk. There Dad would give me all sorts of colorful items, mostly various pieces of matting boards, etc. This goes back to when I was 10 months old.

    No one else was ever allowed in there, period. From a very early age I was impatient at not yet knowing how to read or write, and so "invented" my own system. Alas, therefore I thought that this "condition" was one of my inventions.

    As the person Nanani commented, my "system" goes from zero to 9. Each number has its own specific color. After 9 numbers become combinations or hues, which then stick in my mind very clearly and can eventually be "translated" back into numbers. In my work, for example, I had to deal with huge bank accounts which, of course, were subject to periodic examination by accountants. An accountant might tell me, while I happened to be on his floor, that a certain check had not cleared the bank. My arguing and correcting the amounts struck the accountants as very odd. But to appease them, I'd go back to my own office, get the books, and – voila – I was always right.

    Or one time my boss and I were en route to a deposition for one of our cases for which we also needed someone else. Yet while we waited, that person was not there. Trouble was, neither of us had with us his home phone number, which was unlisted. Then I remembered that on one occasion I had been to that person's home and, while depositing my gloves (we still wore them in those days) on a hall table (next to a telephone), the number hit me as "totally unfitting". It was merely one of those odd thoughts one has in passing.

    Now, however, we were in need of contacting/finding this person, I remembered that incident. I told my boss and he amusedly declined to accept such a recollection. But I made the call and it was the right number. All three of us later had long discussions about that — but no one had then ever heard the word synesthesia.

    I can't tell you how relieved I was when I first read a medical report about it. Finally that "thing" had a name!!!☺ I could tell you endless stories about how it works.

  4. Xiaoyan (Coco) Li said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 3:05 am

    Hello Frank L Chance,

    I haven't thought much about the perceived colors of kanas and the kanjis they derived from, and when I did some research there doesn't seem to be a consensus on which kana derived from which kanji. Regardless, since I didn't know this relation before hand I doubt it would affect my color perceptions, but I could talk about how I perceive kana and kanji of similar shapes, which I suspect you might be more interested in. For example, カ(katakana ka)and 力 (kanji chikara ちから)["power"] are perceived as the same color (yellow), especially since given out of context I could barely tell the two apart. Another example would be セ(katakana se) and 世(kanji yo よ)["society"], which are a similarly grey-ish green, though the former is darker. There is less of this relationship between hirakana and kanji since they generally look less like kanjis or Chinese characters in print form. However, I did once see a 以(yǐ) written in a certain kind of Chinese cursive that looked like い, and spot similarities between other characters and hirakanas in the same script, but did not experience synesthesia, which I assumed it was because I couldn't read that kind of writing well and thus could not parse all of the characters.

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