A synaesthete’s letter tastings

Mary Hildebrandt tastes words more literally than most of us do. She writes the following:

The first time I heard about synaesthesia was in Vladimir Nabokov’s book Speak, Memory. He associates letters, on the printed page and in his mind’s eye, with colours. I can remember how he describes the various blue tones of different “sh” sounds in Russian and in English. I am not sure if I made the connection between my own synaesthesia right away, but I was very interested, and I read about it on Wikipedia. I noticed there was an entry on “Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia.” I wondered, before clicking on the link, whether it was about the experience I have of taste-sensations with words, and indeed it was.

Some of my own tasting-notes of words and letters:

Ks, are hard and dry, like tannins, or like chalk. I remember being a child and thinking that the yolk of hard-boiled eggs never felt quite as pleasant as the tannic feeling of the word itself

Ls are chewy, like chewing gum, or sometimes soft… like a thick layer of melted cheddar cheese. “Chelsea” overwhelmingly, extremely reminds me of cheese, because of the “l” and how it’s offset by those vowels, even evoking a cheesy smell.

“Tortellini,” a word like “Minelli” (as in Liza), is very soft, and you could compare it to pasta.

Rs are similar to Ks and other hard consonants. But when offset with a soft “p,” hard vowels can also be very pleasant. I remember a glimmer of my unconscious synaesthesia when I had a teenage conversation with a friend about the “creamiest” word, which I thought was “prepare,” like liquid cream being stirred, almost like the soft Ps are being stirred by the hard Rs.

Yes, my tasting notes of “P” are certainly soft. A word like “petal” is like the soft, supple, juicy petal of an exotic flower, like how it would be to bite into it, or the mouth-feel of its thick, soft shape.

I never really thought about it until I was older, but I think I assumed that everyone “tasted words.” To me, it seems natural – you say letters with your mouth, the same place where you have different taste and texture sensations with your mouth while you’re eating.

I’m always interested to learn more about lexical-gustatory synesthesia if any of your readers have any tips for further information, or comments.

Thanks, Mary!

7 responses to “A synaesthete’s letter tastings

  1. Fascinating! And not what one would expect, i.e., you’d think a P would be hard and an R soft.
    I’m also a (mild) synesthete, but my synesthesia isn’t lexical-gustatory. Mostly it has to do with numbers, which evoke colours for me. 1 is a soft grey, 2 is a bright teal blue, 3 is orange, 4 is navy blue, etc. It could also be that it’s their vowel sounds that are those colours, but for some reason, my synesthesia first manifested when I was a kid in relation to numbers, rather than words. I’d look at a number and see its colour(s). And sometimes for me smells evoke sounds. Or rather, some smells are “high pitched” and whine-y while others are “lower pitched” and drone-y or rumbly.

  2. I would like to ask Mary if the taste of a consonant changes if its sound changes over time. For example, some proto-Hebrew letters seem to have undergone the following sound changes or had been equivalent to different letters in other languages.

    aleph: northern GHT/Meditrrranean CHS => T > glottal stop
    bet = M (beis 3olam = mausoleum), or MB in Greek
    heh: DH/TH => H
    vav: F/PH => V (ex.: Greek phasis => modHebrew VeSeT = menstruation)
    zayin: S => Z
    het (without a schwa): W => X/KS => KH
    Hebrew siblant + het = SW in English usually via Scandinavian languages
    yod: G/K => Y, sometimes CR in Greek & Latin
    lamed/nun/resh rotate to N/R/L; rotating twice = once in the other direrction
    mem = B
    mem = W (min/max wane/wax phenomena)
    aiyin (printed as 3 here): G/K => Y, sometimes CR (3oFeL = acropolis)
    tzadi: S => TS/TZ
    shin: T => SH (compare English -tion and -tial)
    sof: S = Sephardic T

    Another question: Do different vowels have different tastes?

    Thanks in advance,

  3. Can a distinction be made between metaphorical and literal synaesthesia? I am never sure whether when people talk about mild degrees of synaesthesia they mean essentially imaginative connections such as I make between phenomena related to different senses, or something fundamentally different in kind though in a mild degree. I’ve always thought my own experience as something less than true synaesthesia, because it involves an awareness that I imagine rather than experience the physicallythe sensory parallel

    • Indeed, I think the distinction should be made, because genuine full-on synaesthesia is an actual sensory experience, not just an idea of it, and the associations can be sometimes surprising and are typically idiosyncratic, not consistent across individuals. My “tasting” of words is all just ideas and mental connections; I don’t actually taste peppermint when I see a certain letter or word, as some people do, for instance.

      • My synesthesia is genuine, I’d say, in relation to numbers/colours. If I look at, e.g., 8263, I “see” salmon pink, teal blue, yellow and orange. When I say those numbers out loud, I see the same colours. So that’s a cheerful number. My phone number is very important to me for that reason: if it has a lot of depressing colours in it, e.g., 1450 (light grey, navy blue,yellow-y brown, dark grey), I get depressed having to tell it to people all the time. I always try for a cheerful number if the phone company allows me to choose, because I’m a very visual person and colours matter hugely to me and my moods. (There: now you all know how weird I am!)

  4. I suspect what “metaphorical synaesthetes” have in common with the real thing is that the equivalence between, say, the heard word and the imagined colour/taste/texture etc is consistency. While these responses seem to be utterly idiosyncratic (people can quarrel with hot conviction over the correct colour for a letter or number) they are utterly consistent for each individual. The same word or sound will always evoke exactly the same package of other-sensory equivalentss

  5. Pingback: My guest post about synesthesia | My Blog

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