Synethesia: At Play in the Fields of Letterform

File:Cur eg.svg

RT has long known and admired grass script, a cursive form of Chinese calligraphy that emerged during the Han and Jin dynasties. The transformation from the standard Chinese characters (on the left) to grass script (on the right) epitomizes not only RT’s hope for writing (both sets of these characters say the same thing, but GS with so much more passion and beauty), but even for the world itself.

Readers may object: yes, GS is much more beautiful, but I bet the regular script is a lot easier to read. Good point! How do we take into account the need for communication even as we express our most beautiful self? RT himself has pointed out this problem in a previous post, but now he thinks he’s beginning to see signs of a solution.

Let’s start by considering the humble grapheme, the smallest unit of written in language. There are basically two kinds of graphemes: the alphabetic letter and the stroke that makes up a Chinese (or other logographic) character. What is clear from this distinction is that the Chinese (and others) have paid more attention to the basic shapes of graphemes than we who use an alphabet: they have analyzed their writing into smaller bits: the strokes that make up each word. RT would venture that this has given them greater control of their writing than those using an alphabet can command.

Now, analysis is a powerful thing; it lies at the root of the western scientific revolution and all that has sprung from it. But RT has a hunch that after 500 or so years of using this approach, people may need to start going in the other direction: towards combining things; that is to say, towards synthesis. And in particular, RT is interested in something called synethesia.

File:Scriabin keyboard.svg

Synethesia is a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense automatically stimulates a second; for instance, some individuals see colors when they hear a sound. This chromesthesia can be mild (occasional occurrences triggered by certain specific sounds) or chronic (all sound sources trigger an experience of color). Most people with this condition report that it is difficult to suppress the color sensation. And readers, take note: certain of these sound-color associations appear to be shared by not only Synesthetes but non-Synesthetes as well: a high pitch, for instance, is associated with a brighter color tone; a lower pitch, with a darker.


Perhaps the most common form of synethesia, however, involves a link between graphemes and colors. One girl, Pat Duffy, reported that “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.” And listen to this, from another Synesthete: “When I read, about five words around the exact one I’m reading are in color. It’s also the only way I can spell. In elementary school I remember knowing how to spell the word ‘priority’ [with an “i” rather than an “e”] because … an ‘e’ was out of place in that word because ‘e’s were yellow and didn’t fit.” Imagine the possibilities for helping children learn to read and spell!

What if being messy were a virtue?

The Chinese have long been aware that the moment someone tries to do something correctly, they are far less likely to be able to do it at all. Messiness can be seen as pure energy, and thus at the heart of human endeavor, whatever the field. We need to acknowledge this in both ourselves and our children, to encourage everyone to make connections and associations. It’s not enough to think outside of the box; we must begin joining the boxes together better than they have been in the past.

The possibilities for communication are staggering. What if certain colors were understood to convey specific information and grouped with other colors in a unit that had meaning? What if some of the missing information in grass script was conveyed in its energy and beauty? This would transform writing systems and bring us that much closer to understanding each other.


Images: at topCǎoshū Grass script, written in standard and grass script. Middle: Tone-to-color mapping of Scriabin‘s Clavier à lumières. Bottom: Synethesia.  All files: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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  1. February 15, 2013 at 10:51 pm

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