Nearly everyone associates certain colours with different vowel sounds, according to a new study.
Research conducted by linguists found that most people have a similar idea of which colours and vowels fit with each other.
People with synaesthesia, a condition where certain colours or sounds trigger different senses, were found to choose the same colour for a particular sound.
An online test of over 1,000 people showed that most people chose the same colours when shown 16 different combinations of spoken vowels.
The large majority of people, who don’t have synaesthesia, said that ‘i’ matched with green or yellow, green was picked for ‘e’, and ‘a’ was mostly associated with pink or red.
‘O’ and ‘u’ were more closely associated with darker colours – ‘o’ was purple-blue and ‘u’ was blue or red.
The interactive visualisation below lets you see what colours were picked by participants when they heard certain vowel sounds.
Each participant is shown as small dots, with non-synaesthetes and below it are the synaesthetes.
Hover over the visual to hear the sounds and colours associated with them
The colours shown here matched with the vowels listed beside them. The image two case studies from participants and shows colours as seen from a person without synaesthesia.
WHAT COLOURS MATCHED WITH VOWELS?
A – Red, pink or orange
E – Green and orange
I – Green and yellow
O – Blue and purple
U – Mostly blue or red
The study, conducted by Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, refers to ‘vowel space’.
For example, when you say ‘aa’ then move to ‘oo’ as in boot and then to ‘ee’ as in beet, you have visited the three outer points of what linguists call the vowel space.
The 16 spoken sounds were evenly distributed over this space.
A large majority felt that ‘aa’ was more red than green, and ‘ee’ was more light than dark, whether they had synaesthesia or not.
Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer of Lolita, was a synaesthete and saw colours when hearing certain vowels, but many forms of synaesthesia are possible.
Nabokov described seeing the colour of polished ebony when hearing an ‘aa’ sound and yellow when hearing an ‘ee’ sound.
According to Mark Dingemanse, one of the researchers, there is logic to how we link sound and colour and the structure of language has an important role in this process.’
Only one in 25 people have synaesthesia, but this new research shows that certain intuitions about ‘sound colours’ are shared by many more people.
In the tests, 73 said they did have synaesthesia, 290 said they did not, and 512 said they didn’t know.
This image shown here is two case studies from synesthetes in the study more precisely chose the same color for a particular sound.
WHAT IS SYNESTHESIA?
Synesthesia causes people to have unusual sensory experiences.
For example, people with the condition might hear a certain sound when they see a specific color.
Additionally, specific tastes can be elicited by certain words for some people with synesthesia, according to WebMD.
The name of the condition comes from Greek roots, and it means to ‘perceive together’ when translated.
Synesthesia is not harmful; the condition does not negatively impact one’s health.
Rather, some research suggests that people with synesthesia perform better on intelligence and memory tests.
The following are combinations of incidents that people with synesthesia can experience:
- tasting food when hearing or seeing a certain word
- tasting food when seeing a certain shape
- seeing patterns or shapes when hearing certain sounds
- smelling specific scents when hearing certain sounds
- tasting food when hearing certain sounds
- hearing a sound when feeling an object in your hands
High/front vowels were found to be lighter, with more green and more yellow than low/back vowels.
Synaesthetes respond more strongly on some dimensions, choosing lighter and more yellow colours for high and mid front vowels than do non-synaesthetes.
According to Mark Dingemanse, one of the researchers on the study: ‘There seems to be a logic to how we link sound and colour, and the structure of language has an important role in this process.’
‘Our findings showed that with lighter colours (yellow, green) associated with more front vowels, or vowels that come from the front of the mouth.
‘Darker colours (e.g., red, brown, blue) were associated with back vowels and redder colours were associated with low front vowels.’
The associations are shaped according to how our language carves up the vowel space, according to the research.
‘If colour associations were purely dependent on acoustical factors, the colours would neatly run into one another like in a rainbow,’ Mr Dingemanse said.
‘Instead, we see that sounds are grouped according to the way that our language carves up the vowel space.
‘A few blue spots and then suddenly a red one, with no transition of blue-purple-red. You could say that the vowels have to pass through the sorting machine that is our language before we can link colours to them, even in synaesthetes, for whom associations like these are involuntary.’
The research was published in Behavior Research Methods.