Languages Magazine

Hearing Colors: Inside Nabokov's Synesthesia

By Expectlabs @ExpectLabs


One of the twentieth century’s literary masterminds could actually “hear” colors. Vladimir Nabokov had grapheme-color synesthesia, which is a condition where words and letters are infused with colors and textures. As a result, the author experienced a rare obsession with his senses that manifested itself heavily in his creative work. 

Below is an excerpt from Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisitedwhere he describes his experience as a synesthete:

“…I present a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but the French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl…”

Nabokov’s synesthesia also enabled him to see different colors in different languages. His gift added another layer to his writing, and made it straddle the line between both visual and literary masterpieces.

(via Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited/ Image via Wikimedia Commons)

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