In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Synesthesia and Language

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works and General Overviews
  • Relationship between Linguistic and Sensory Synesthesia

Linguistics Synesthesia and Language
Francesca Strik-Lievers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0307


The term synesthesia (Greek syn ‘together’ and aisthēsis ‘sensation’; also spelled synaesthesia) is used to refer to two distinct phenomena, in different fields of research. In linguistics and in literary studies, synesthesia (henceforth, linguistic synesthesia) is a figure of speech in which linguistic expressions referring to different sensory modalities are combined. An example of linguistic synesthesia is the noun phrase soft voice: the hearing-related noun voice is here modified by the touch-related adjective soft. In medicine, where the term was first coined, as well as in neuroscience and psychology, synesthesia (henceforth, sensory synesthesia) is a relatively rare condition in which specific sensory or cognitive stimuli automatically and consistently activate the simultaneous experience of an unrelated additional sensory or cognitive property. For example, some synesthetes (people with synesthesia) see colors when hearing musical notes. According to most scholars, linguistic and sensory synesthesia are not directly connected. However, on the one hand, evidence from neuroscience and psychology is often evoked to account for certain features of linguistic synesthesia, such as the preference observed across languages for combining some sensory modalities over others (e.g., smells are often described by taste-related qualities, as in sweet fragrance, but rarely by visual qualities). On the other hand, sensory synesthesia often involves language in its written or oral form, as in the case of synesthetes who see graphemes in colors even when they are printed in black ink. Although this article mainly deals with linguistic synesthesia, some references are also provided for sensory synesthesia, focusing especially on those aspects that are of linguistic interest.

Foundational Works and General Overviews

Stephen Ullmann’s work, published in its most complete form in Ullmann 1957, had a crucial role in establishing linguistic synesthesia, formerly a rather marginal trope in rhetoric and literary critique, as a relevant subject of research for general linguistics and semantics. Winter 2019a offers a thorough treatment of linguistic synesthesia within a broader discussion of the linguistic expression of sensory experience. A concise overview of both classical and more recent studies on linguistic synesthesia can be found in Strik Lievers, et al. 2021. As regards sensory synesthesia, a good starting point is the primer Simner 2019 as well as Cytowic 2018, whose neurophysiological studies on synesthesia in the 1980s greatly contributed to reviving scientific interest in the subject. More detailed information about the advances in contemporary research can be found in the collective reference work Simner and Hubbard 2013. Jewanski, et al. 2020 traces the history of early research on (sensory) synesthesia and of the term synesthesia itself.

  • Cytowic, Richard E. 2018. Synesthesia. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    A concise and accessible introduction to sensory synesthesia, which includes an overview of the history of synesthesia research and of its more recent developments, and the description of both the most frequent and some rarer cases of synesthesia.

  • Jewanski, Jörg, Julia Simner, Sean A. Day, Nicolas Rothen, and Jamie Ward. 2020. The evolution of the concept of synesthesia in the nineteenth century as revealed through the history of its name. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 29.3: 259–285.

    DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2019.1675422

    A fascinating history of early medical and psychological research into the condition that we now call synesthesia, as seen through the history of the names by which it has been designated, in English and in other languages, since the late 18th century. The term synesthesia was first used in its modern sense at the end of the 19th century, and a few years later it also began to be used for the figure of speech.

  • Simner, Julia. 2019. Synaesthesia: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780198749219.001.0001

    An accessible primer, discussing neuroscientific research on synesthesia, various hypotheses on its origin, the methods that are used to diagnose it, and the relationship between synesthesia and artistic creativity. Each chapter is accompanied by a list of essential readings.

  • Simner, Julia, and Edward M. Hubbard, eds. 2013. The Oxford handbook of synesthesia. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A handbook covering all major aspects of sensory synesthesia research. The forty-nine chapters deal with, among other topics, the history of synesthesia research from the 19th century on, the neurological basis of synesthesia, different types of synesthesia, and the relation between synesthesia and creativity, memory, and imagery.

  • Strik Lievers, Francesca, Chu-Ren Huang, and Jiajuan Xiong. 2021. Linguistic synaesthesia. In The Routledge handbook of cognitive linguistics. Edited by Xu Wen and John R. Taylor, 372–383. New York: Routledge.

    A brief overview of classical and recent research on linguistic synesthesia, in Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages.

  • Ullmann, Stephen. 1957. The principles of semantics. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Within this monograph on semantics, a large portion of the chapter dedicated to general semantics (versus descriptive and historical semantics) is dedicated to linguistic synesthesia and has become an indispensable reference for studies on the topic, especially for those dealing with preferences in sensory combinations (see section Corpus-Based Studies of Linguistic Synesthesia).

  • Winter, Bodo. 2019a. Sensory linguistics: Language, perception and metaphor. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/celcr.20

    A large part of this highly interdisciplinary monograph about the relationship between language and the senses is dedicated to linguistic synesthesia. Based on a thorough review of the literature and on an innovative corpus-based study of English sensory adjectives, Winter critically discusses a multiplicity of motivations that may account for asymmetries in synesthetic sensory combinations, that is, for the preference that is observed for some sensory combinations over others.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.