Words of Color
As two young men were taking an evening walk, one of them chanced to remark on the noise the frogs were making. His friend, an Englishman not long in America, asked what had been said.
“ I said the frogs were in great force tonight ; the bullfrog concert, you know. ”
“It is frogs that make this noise !" exclaimed the other ; “and you hear it, too ! Thank Heaven ! Here I have been thinking for a week past that these sounds were all in my own head, and that I was going crazy.”
Although not with the like actual relief, it was yet with great satisfaction that I read in t the August Atlantic a Contributor’s remarks on the interdependence of sounds and colors. I have all my life felt what is there described, every word having always for me its proper color ; and I had not known that any other person shared this whim or habit, but supposed that it was entirely “ in my own head.” I have never regarded this as an infirmity, in my case, but rather as a compensation for being deficient to an unusual degree in a sense of form. I am unable to shape anything except in mere Chinese imitation of a pattern ; I do not distinguish handwriting ; I am at a loss to find any article I may seek for, because I have no mental picture of its looks ; and alas ! I cannot, save rarely in a dream, represent to myself the face of an absent friend. Has the Contributor any lack of this kind ?
In the perception of color in words, my palette is differently set from either of those mentioned. With me the vowel a is black, e is white, i red, o yellow, and u brown. Abraham is a black word, Everett all white, Abyssinia and icicle are red, Solomon is bright yellow, Russia and truth are both brown. It seems to be the accented vowel that gives color to the word ; the vowel preceding or following may or may not affect its shade. The obscure e has little influence, though Anderson and Carpenter are not so black as Hathaway. Webster and Clement are clearer white than Elbridge, which ends in a tinge of red. O appears as the strongest vowel, and such words as Harold, Gladstone, adorn, and Strathmore are dark gray, nearly black, with a bright ending, as if gilded. Carlyle is not so full a gray, terminating in a bright red. The diphthong ow is orange in color, so that while Lowell is a yellow word, lightened a little by the e into lemon color, Howells is deep orange, like owl or tower. “ Old Grimes is dead,” but his color is brighter than that of Smith or Hill, who may be alive.
I have tried to frame a theory or to find a law explaining this matter, but without success; I am met by so many contradictory appearances. For instance, Waldo should be black and gold, but the sound presents itself all yellow; and why then should Walter be almost black ? Is it because the e has slight effect ? There is no blue connected with any sound, unless it may be detected in the purplish color of Detroit, boy, noise, etc. This purple occurs, too, in Louisa and other words of more than two vowels not separated by a consonant.
It would interest me to know if, in the Contributor’s scale, the spelling of words interferes with the vowel color. With me it sometimes does so, as thus : Brooks and Fuller, having the same sound, should look alike to the inner eye; but Brooks is uniformly yellow, having o, and Fuller’s u stamps him brown.
Perhaps the chief use of this our “ fad ” is in helping the memory to arrest fugitive proper names, but it serves us also with common words. For instance, a word would not come at command; in vain its definition was given, and answers suggested. “ No, not sauce or spice.” “Is it flavor ? “No, no ; a longer word than those, and it begins yellow.” The sought-for word appeared at last; it was condiment. Here let me say, the stretch or extent of color has some relation to the length of its word. Take Montgomery, for example : the number of syllables might not be remembered, but the spread of color beyond that made by Cook or Jones would be noticeable.
I forgot to say there is no green as well as no blue in my color-box. There is a lilac, produced by some sound of a following the vowel i, as in the word lilac or Isaac. This is not the color when the a comes first, as in Carlyle before mentioned, where is a distinct black or gray followed by red ; so in admire, abide, activity, and others.
There is much pleasure given by this whim or possession. In reading verse, there is a play of color, akin, I suppose, to modulations in musical compositions, which is not due to the image meant to be produced by the poet, but to the mere sound of the words employed. Take Campbell’s verses on Hohenlinden. When he tells us that “all bloodless lay the untrodden snow,” he sees and makes us see, at near the time of sunset, a vast white expanse of new-fallen snow ; but as I hear or repeat it, on that second line, or beginning with the word “ low ” in the previous line, is a clear, golden flush of color from the recurrence of the o four times. Again, in the even more familiar “Mary had a little lamb,” we begin with the demure Mary in black, and go on to gray ; and when we are told that “its fleece was white as snow,” I suppose most hearers think of a little creature standing by with very clean, white wool. I can see this, but I also see — or do I hear in the sound of e, i, and o? — a pure white, a vivid red, and a gold color.
In the attempt to write verse there is the pleasure of playing with one’s vowels. One may use them all in succession, and describe a face in a picture as “pale, gleaming’mid soft curls.”
It is to be observed that the meaning of a word does not denote, still less command, its color. While white is bright red, green is pure white, snow a clear yellow, blue a smooth brown, and sky is not azure, but vermilion, and I wish I knew why.
I should very much like to know if the Contributor is similarly affected by the color of voices. With me they are never destitute of color. None sound actually black, but there are several shades of gray and of a purplish slate ; the white, too, is not that of words, never snow white or like paper or cloth, but like silver. And, by the way, people often use the expression “ a silvery voice.” What do they mean by it ? The shrill voices of children are in shades of red ; men’s voices, numerous browns, from pale dead leaf down to mahogany. Women often speak in buff. I have heard pink and delicate fawn color and lilac voices; sometimes these are sadly faded, as if not warranted fast. I hear no yellow voices, but we know, for we have been told, that it is not speech, but silence that is golden. Considering this, let me now be silent.