Eric Banks (of the excellent BookForum) directed my attention to an amazing NY Times story by Donald G. McNeil Jr. called “For Some, the Words Just Roll Off the Tongue”:

Lexical-gustatories involuntarily “taste” words when they hear them, or even try to recall them, [Julia Simner, a cognitive neuropsychologist and synaesthesia expert at the University of Edinburgh] wrote in a study, “Words on the Tip of the Tongue,” published in the issue of Nature dated Thursday. She has found only 10 such people in Europe and the United States.

Magnetic-resonance imaging indicates that they are not faking, she said. The correct words light up the taste regions of their brains. Also, when given a surprise test a year later, they taste the same foods on hearing the words again.

(Synaesthetes are hardly ever described as “suffering from” the syndrome, because their doubled perceptions excite envy in many of us mere sensual Muggles.)

It can be unpleasant, however. One subject, Dr. Simner said, hates driving, because the road signs flood his mouth with everything from pistachio ice cream to ear wax.

And Dr. Simner has yet to figure out any logical pattern.

For example, the word “mince” makes one subject taste mincemeat, but so do rhymes like “prince.” Words with a soft “g,” as in “roger” or “edge,” make him taste sausage. But another subject, hearing “castanets,” tastes tuna fish. Another can taste only proper names: John is his cornbread, William his potatoes.
They cannot explain the links, she said. There is no Proustian madeleine moment — the flavors are just there.

But all have had the condition since childhood, so chocolate is commonly tasted, while olives and gin are not.

That’s the strangest thing I’ve heard in a while. (I wonder what “Languagehat” tastes like?)


  1. My bet is that many of your commenters are synaesthetes, LH. The syndrome is correlated with strange interests and talents in language. I myself am a synaesthete, of sorts. In my case it isn’t strong enough to be an affliction, but it certainly can be intrusive.
    Don’t ask what Languagehat tastes like. I’m sure it tastes (or feels, or is coloured) differently for different synaesthetes. Quot synaesthetes, tot qualia.

  2. Sweeter than honey, Steve, as you well know.

  3. This is a fairly well-known type of synaesthesia, so it seems a little strange that they paint this as the discovery of a recent study.
    I myself have synaesthesia of the colour-grapheme type. Every letter and number (and Japanese character) I see as a colour, and words are combinations of colours. It was strange to me when I discovered as a child that no one else I knew did that.
    P.S. “Languagehat” is a big mix of blues and greens with a bit of red and pink.

  4. Wait a minute… isn’t there a difference between a medical condition of synaesthesia and mental associations of say, colours and letters? For instance–I make these associations–R, F, and D are all brown–and Rimbaud famously wrote a poem about similar connections–but surely everyone makes arbitrary associations like these. (I suspect I was taught my letters using coloured cards.) But I thought that synaesthesia was psychologically a much more powerful condition… am I wrong about this?

  5. Synaesthesia is indeed powerful, but it’s not a medical “condition”, just an unusual characteristic of some people’s brains. It’s a strong psychological connection between writing and sensory input that affects supposedly 4% of the population (though I wonder if that number is even too high, since I know no one else with it).

  6. @Paul D: You’re right, of course, that this kind of synaesthesia has been known to exist for some time; the novelty in this work was that they presented pictures of objects, which the participants then had to pronounce. Thus they provided no phonological cues – only semantic ones – in order to discover whether or not the latter are sufficient to evoke the appropriate taste. (And in some but not all cases, they were.)
    As it happens I also work in neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh (although not in this particular field – my interest in language is more of a hobby!), so I’ve actually heard about this work from the researchers directly. Scientifically, I do find it fascinating that these people often taste the word before they pronounce it, and that “adult” tastes normally do not occur.
    I know that the science of language in the brain is not a big focus here – nor would I have it be – but it’s nice to see a bit of this creeping in recently alongside more purely language-related posts. Having said that, one thing I regret about working in science is the need for precision over scriptory aestheticism…!

  7. Chicken?

  8. Siganus Sutor says

    I cannot but wonder how “one subject” got to know the taste of ear wax… And how he had this particular taste in his mouth on seeing road signs…

  9. Ear wax is a very early childhood taste.

  10. Siganus Sutor says

    I certainly missed something then. And I suppose it’s too late now to try to fill this kind of gap.
    Picking my nose maybe? Nah, it’s too full of hair nowadays.

  11. Siganus: When my daughter was younger, she bit her nails to a dangerous extent, so we painted her nails with ear-wax-flavored clear nail polish. It worked to some extent.
    Conrad: I have no such associations between letters and colors, not even on the metaphorical rather than the sensual level. The only letters I associate with brown are B, R, O, W, and N when in that order.

  12. If you want the flavor of ear wax without the full ick factor, try Bertie Bott’s Beans.
    LH, you taste like coffee and dark chocolate to me. Mmm.

  13. Marilynn Masten says

    I don’t just taste the word, I EAT it. William gives me a mouthful of fried onions. Integity is pound cake. Village is Sausage. Benjamin is Spinach. Most of my tastes were set in childhood, the first time I hard the word. But I know I never heard integrity as a child.
    Unlike James, I have never tasted ear wax, but some words make sense. Angel is Angel Food cake. And yet Dorothy certainly doesn’t suggest applesauce but it tastes like it.
    Whatever, I consider this a blessing and feel sorry for those who don’t have it.

  14. Why do they assume that children don’t eat olives?

  15. Siganus Sutor says

    John: we painted her nails with ear-wax-flavored clear nail polish. It worked to some extent.
    When you say “it worked”, do you mean that she liked it enough to start picking wax from her ears instead of biting her nails?
    As for colours associated with letters, I too am part of those who see them in black and white only.
    Well, here I can notice that they have a greyish tone, or sometimes an elegant shade of green, but I cannot honestly say that I see these characters with a differentiated colouration. Maybe I’m too basic a vertebrate, one that hasn’t been touched by evolution.

  16. Marilynn, I’m curious. Does your synaesthesia work for individual letters and numbers? How about words in any second language you may have learned?

  17. This condition was discussed on a TV programme in the UK recently. I just wonder whether people with the condition find that eg the word “chocolate” tastes like, well, chocolate, and that the word “garlic” tastes like – garlic?

  18. Marilynn Masten says

    Letter and numbers, no. Well, come to think of it “a” is runny egg yolk, but a is also a word.
    Another language, I don’t speak any other language fluently (grapefruit) but other language personal names certainly taste. Rene tastes like tangerines for example, but I find myself translating the name into English so it ends up the same. Afraid (cornflakes) there is no explanation——and this is NOT an affliction!

  19. Marilynn Masten says

    Forgot to add that Alice is Olives and that was set in childhoos.

  20. michael farris says

    I’m no synaesthete, that is when one sense is triggered I don’t perceive another, but I do associate perceptions across senses.
    [i] = yellow
    [a] = beige/ivory/off white (depending on phonetic details)
    [e] = green (the lower the e, the lighter)
    [o] = red/brown (depening on phonetic details)
    [u] = deep purple (almost black)
    As for language hat, I’d associated the phonetic/emic qualities with walnuts, marzipan and nougat thick, chewy and a little gooey.

  21. “languagehat” is pale green, but “Language Hat” is half dark green, half black.
    Sorry, I know that wasn’t the question.

  22. Just to let you know that bookofjoe has included a link to a free Russian original “The Mind of a Mnemonist” – A. R. Luria, in his post on this.

  23. “Languagehat” reminds me of imam bayildi, the unctuous eggplant/onion/garlic/tomato/olive oil Turkish dish. Which I really like. The bright acidity of the tomatoes lies around the first syllable, and the oiliness around the transition to “hat.”

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