Taste, text, and everyday synaesthesia

When I was reading The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky, I was gratified to see some discussion of the mild everyday synaesthesia that accompanies food-related language such as brand names or menu descriptions. Acute synaesthesia involves distinct, consistent perceptions of one sense combined with another; for example, perceiving musical tones to have colors or experiencing flavor when certain words are spoken or read. (I Am Curious Yellow is a thoughtful essay by a synaesthete who associates colors with letters and numbers; Nabokov experienced something similar.) The acute sensory phenomenon is not very common, but some research suggests that the general population experiences a certain amount of combined sensory perception in perfectly ordinary interactions with food and food-related words.

Jurafsky describes a phenomenon called the bouba/kiki effect (which was also explored recently by The Plate). In brief: research participants were shown two shapes—one with rounded blobby edges and one with pointy spikes—and asked which of the shapes should be called “bouba” and which should be “kiki.” Nearly every participant assigned “bouba” to the blob and “kiki” to the star. There is something about big, round vowels that suggest round shapes, and something about staccato sounds that imply sharp edges. Jurafsky, a linguist, explains that the nonsense words “bouba” and “kiki” differ in how and where the vowel sounds are produced in the mouth. “Kiki,” along with words like cheese, mint, and thin, is a word that emphasizes front vowels which are made by holding the tongue high up in the mouth. The vowels in “bouba,” along with words like large, mocha, and brownies, engage back vowels. As Jurafsky writes, “A number of studies over the last 100 years or so have shown that front vowels in many languages tend to be used in words that refer to small, thin, light things, and back vowels in words that refer to big, fat, heavy things.” For further research, Jurafsky catalogued the brand names for snack foods and unsurprisingly found more back vowels in the ice cream and front vowels in the crackers. Names like Jamocha Almond Fudge just feel thicker and creamier in the mouth; a name like Ritz evokes the salty, crispy texture we want from a cracker.


Jurafsky’s hypothesis:

“The perception of acoustic smoothness by one of our five senses, hearing, is somehow linked to the perception of smoothness by two other senses: vision (seeing a curvy figure instead of a jagged one) and taste (tasting a creamy instead of sharp taste). . . . Something about our senses of taste/smell, vision, and hearing are linked at least enough so that what is smooth in one is associated with being smooth in another, so that we feel the similarity between sharpness detected by smell (as in cheddar), sharpness in touch or vision (like acute angles), and sharpness detected by hearing (abrupt changes in sound). We can see this link between senses even in our daily vocabulary. The words sharp and pungent both originally meant something tactile and visual: something that feels pointy or subtends a small visual angle, but both words can be applied to tastes and smells as well.”

This hypothesis delights me as a literary scholar: I sometimes write about ekphrasis, which is most often used to describe text which attempts to evoke the vivid, dimensional perception of an artwork, but which could very well describe the impact of reading about plums in poetry or roasted chestnuts in a novel. If we can generalize about the way words shape human perceptions of taste and texture, then that little punch in the gut you may feel when William Carlos Williams apologizes for eating the plums that were in the icebox is more than a subjective reader response. As much as I enjoy reading about food scenes in literature from a historical and cultural perspective, I’ve always wanted to see more literary food studies that draw from aesthetic philosophy and phenomenology, and the apparently widespread synaesthetic experience of reading food-related language should be a compelling topic for those fields.

But there are many more practical examples of the ways the perception of taste, texture, vision, and hearing might merge in different combinations. A recent essay at The Nautilus sums up a few such findings from the last few years, such as the ways the color of a beverage or the shape and opacity of its container influence whether we find it sweet. Tate Britain is working on a multisensory exhibit that will explore crossmodal perception by combining the experience of viewing visual art with smell and aural stimuli. And, of course, brand marketers are always exploring new ways to captivate our senses, such as embedding a pleasant if unrelated smell in a product to create a positive association, or promoting a new shade of burgundy by linking it to wine.

One response to “Taste, text, and everyday synaesthesia

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Remembrance of Things Past | Scenes of Eating·

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