Sound Versus Color


A CORRESPONDENT of Notes and Queries says : “ Almost from childhood I have been in the habit of associating the vowel sounds in a word with color. In the course of a somewhat long life, I never met more than one person (a woman) who was possessed of a similar craze, as I considered it, and in her case only two of the vowels, a and o, were supposed to have color. In my own case each vowel has its distinctive color. A is very white, e is light blue, i is red, o black, and u brown. When I hear a name I remember its color, although I may not remember the name itself; and thus I sometimes give a wrong name, although of the same color ; for example, ‘ Mr. Cook ’ instead of ‘ Mr. Wood.’ To my mind ‘ Abraham ’ is a very white word, ‘ need ’ is light blue, ‘ iniquity ’ is as red as if printed in red ink, ‘ bore ’ is black, and ‘useful ’ is brown.”

I feel very much like shaking hands with the unknown Notes and Queries man across seas, for, as far back as I can remember, a younger sister (no longer living) and myself had the same “fad ; ” and until now we were the only people I had ever heard of possessing it, so that I was really pleased to learn there were a few other persons in the world affected in the same way. And I should now like to “ inquire round ” among the friends of the Club whether any of them have a similar gift, — though indeed I hardly know whether to call it that, — and are in sympathy with my English friend and myself ; and above all, whether any one has anything like a philosophical explanation to offer for this peculiarity. It seems as if there must be some principle underlying it all that could be found. Most of us have, I think, heard the story of the man, born blind, who asked what the color of scarlet might be like, and was told to imagine it like the blast of a trumpet. Many people can see how very good that is, and it seems to me that our color fad must be based on exactly the same principle, only carried down to infinitely finer gradations.

I should like to add that my English friend and I do not see the same colors in the vowels. We agree only in the u, which to me, as to him, is brown,—a rich redbrown. Otherwise, my scale of colors is this : a, pale green; e, pale pink; i, yellow, either light or dark, according to pronunciation (in “ Smith,” for instance, orange ; in “ bright,” more a lemon color); o, dark blue; and finally, u, brown. Combinations of vowels, such as in “ house,” “memoir,” etc., have a tint of their own, — a sea-green, a kind of purple, and so on. Probably every one having the fad possesses a different color tablet of his or her own. I remember, for instance, that my sister’s differed from mine, though I do not recollect in what way. But in whatever combinations this singular palette may be made up, the mind lays on the colors by a perfectly involuntary process, — for there is no conscious effort of the will or imagination about it, — and with absolute and inflexible consistency ; there is no shifting or varying of colors, they remain always the same. Thus the name “ Clarence ” (the process is somewhat more conspicuous in proper names, perhaps, but might be, and really is, applied to every word in the language) is to me, for instance, infallibly pale green and pale pink; “ John,” indigo; " Ruth,” dark brown ; “ Lily,” yellow ; “ Jackson,” pale green and indigo ; and so on, indefinitely.

There is a word in German that ought to have some bearing on this subject, — Klang-Farbe, sound-tint. To the best of my knowledge, it is used mostly in musical composition. For instance, if there is in a piece too great a preponderance of one instrument, — let us say first violins, — the Klang-Farbe will not be just right.

I am quite aware that to any one knowing nothing of my fad this must all seem very vague and flighty, possibly like mere nonsense. But if some Club friend can and will come forward and assure me that I am not the only “ crank ” on the subject on this side of the water, it will be very interesting as well as delightful.