Colored letters revisited in other languages.


Someone asked me what a bunch of letters, I think in the Russian alphabet, would look like to me synaesthetically. My answer was that at first they would look like the colors of the letters that most resembled them in English (although some of them, I noticed that even if the Russian letter was, say, similar to a standard English numeral, I often interpreted it as a rotated and/or flipped letter instead of a numeral. No idea why). And then, if I ever learned the actual pronunciations, it’s a good bet that they would, if analogous to pronunciation I knew in my usual alphabet, grow to resemble the colors of those letters, and even the ones that were not the usual, would gain pronunciations of their own.

And, I know I have a lot of people’s mail to answer, but I’ve been among other things pretty absorbed in documenting how I now see Arabic letters. I took Arabic for a year in college, and while I remember almost none of the words (I remember some long strings of words, but reciting the Quran is not exactly conversational), I retained the alphabet just fine. So this is a foreign language whose alphabet I’ve already learned, which has correlations to the colors of letters in English now, as well as some of its own colors for sounds that can’t be easily approximated by English sounds.

So I’m going to warn you that what’s up ahead in this post is very long, very graphic-intensive, and not necessarily all that blind-accessible (I try to do descriptions, but don’t always succeed well). Also, please note that I was wearing tinted glasses and using as dark a monitor setting as possible when I made my last letters, so I just remade them again and they’ll look a bit different than before. (I still have copies of the old ones but they look all wrong.)

I’m now going to try to post this and hope it came out right.

Edited to add: You can hear the sounds of the Arabic alphabet here:

(corrected because I’d accidentally posted one of them twice)

Or, if you like it musical, here:

Or, if you like it musical with cute little kids singing it:

Anyway, on to the synaesthetic stuff.

Here are the English letters:

the letter A in blue
the letter B in orange
the letter C in red
the letter D in brown
the letter E in green
the letter F in dark yellow
the letter G in purple
the letter H in orange
the letter I in white
the letter J in blue
the letter K in blue
the letter L in transparent
the letter M in red
the letter N in orange
the letter O in black
the letter P in green
the letter Q in pink
the letter R in purple
the letter S in red
the letter T in brown
the letter U in yellow
the letter V in light purple
the letter W in pink
the letter X in purple
the letter Y in yellow
the letter Z in brown

Then the Arabic letters:

the letter alif in blue

The letter alif is blue. It works a lot like A in English.

the letter baa in orange

The letter baa is orange. Like B in English.

the letter taa in brown

The letter taa is brown. Like T in English.

the letter thaa in brown

The letter thaa is brown. Like a hard TH (as in baTH) in English.

the letter jiim in blue

The letter jiim is light blue. Like J in English.

the letter Hhaa in orange

The letter ?aa is orange. It doesn’t have an English equivalent. It’s usually transliterated as ?. It’s similar to an H sound, but not the same as usual in English.

the letter khaa in brown

The letter khaa is brown. It doesn’t (except in certain accents) have an English equivalent, it’s sort of like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ in Scottish.

the letter daal in brown

The letter daal is brown. Like D in English.

the letter dhaal in brown

The letter dhaal is brown. Like a soft TH in English (as in ‘cloTHing’).

the letter raa in purple

The letter raa is purple. Like an R in Spanish.

the letter zaa in brown

The letter zaa is brown. Like a Z in English.

the letter siin in red

The letter siin is red. Like S in English.

the letter shiin in red

The letter shiin is red. Like SH in English.

the letter Saad in red

The letter Saad (also ?aad, represented usually as ?) is red. It has no English equivalent. It’s similar to an S, but not the same thing.

the letter Daad in red-brown

The letter Daad (also ?aad, represented usually as ?) is red-brown. It has no English equivalent. It’s similar to a D, but not the same thing.

the letter Taa in brown

The letter Taa (also ?aa, represented usually as ?) is brown. It has no English equivalent. It’s similar to a T, but not the same thing.

the letter Dhaa in brown

The letter Dhaa (also ?aa, represented usually as ?) is brown. It has no English equivalent, and not even a whole lot of easy analogies in English sounds. It’s like a cross between a soft TH and a V, sort of.

the letter ayn in light blue

The letter ?ayn is light blue. It’s usually represented as ?. It’s a glottal stop, and while we make those noises in English, they’re not written down. (They’re sort of the noise you’d make if you said “bottom” but didn’t pronounce the “tt” part, the part where the “tt” would be is the noise this letter makes.)

the letter ghayn in light purple

The letter ghayn is light purple. It makes the same sound as a French R.

the letter faa in dark yellow

The letter faa is dark yellow. Like F in English.

the letter qaaf in red

The letter qaaf is red. I think the sound would normally be represented by K, but it’s not the same sound as a usual K.

the letter kaaf in blue

The letter kaaf is blue. Like K in English.

the letter laam in transparent

The letter laam is transparent. Like L in English.

the letter meem in red

The letter meem is red. Like M in English.

the letter noon in orange

The letter noon is orange. Like N in English.

the letter waw in pink

The letter waw is pink. Like W in English (also makes an “oo” sound as a vowel).

the letter haa in orange

The letter haa is orange. Like H in English.

the letter yaa in yellow

The letter y is yellow. Like y in English (also makes an “ee” sound as a vowel).

And… now that I’ve got all that out of the way, here are the letters as grouped by color.

red letters

The letters in various shades of red are C, M, Q, S, W, thaa, khaa, siin, sheen, ?aad, ?aad, qaaf, meem, and waw.

orange letters

The letters in various shades of orange (including red-orange and orange-yellow) are B, D, H, N, T, Z, baa, taa, daal, dhaal, zaa, ?aa, noon, ?aa, ?aa, and haa.

yellow letters

The letters in yellow are F, U, Y, faa, and yaa.

green letters

The letters in green are E and P.

blue letters

The letters in blue are A, J, K, alif, jiim, `ayn, and kaaf.

purple letters

The letters in purple are G, R, V, X, ghayn, and raa.

colorless letters

The letters without a color are I, L, O, and laam. L and laam are also transparent.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations. :-P


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

19 responses »

  1. I don’t know if it was the point but something tells me that those pictures with both english and arabic letters could be a good idea for some decoration.

    Maybe pictures with even more alphabetes…

    *dreams of a business venture*

  2. That’s fascinating. I wonder what you would do with the Chinese character “Gong1” In Mandarin it ounds like “Goong” said in the first tone which is sort of like singing a higher note than usual speech.

    The character looks a lot like a capitol I with wider top and bottom lines than a typical Latin “I”.

    The Russian letter that looks like a backwards R in Russian is pronounced “Yah”. Does it have a stable color to you?

    I wish I had synaethesia. :-)

  3. Ms. Clark: The ? (Ya) character right now looks to me like an R in English, which is to say purple. This sort of problem is compounded by the fact that I used to take all my notes in mirror writing, and I’m used to taking mirrored letters as equivalent in some ways, although I can learn otherwise obviously (since b, d, p, and q are all different colors).

    It would be very hard for me to imagine the ? (Ya) as the proper shade of yellow. Maybe if I learned Russian, it would resolve to that shade eventually. But right now it’s resolutely purple.

  4. Just a note that I’ve added in YouTube stuff I found for the pronunciation in case my descriptions are not sufficient. (In three forms: Spoken, sung, and sung by a group of cute little kids.)

  5. Dear Ballastexistenz Sorry I’ve forgotten your real name,but I am a great fan of your blog

    I started learning Arabic while I was in High School in the 1970’s, and converted to (Sunni) Islam but I do not speak it fluently. I have not memorized the Quran, as some people have done, but at least I can read it–if the type isn’t too small–it has the vowel markings in it, whearas the newspaper Arabic does not.
    I do not have synasthesia, (Is that the right word?) but I do enjoy your descriptions of the colors.

  6. Funny, because Quran passages (not all of them, but some of them) are about all I remember besides letters. And I mostly remember them as strings of words, not separate words, although we did learn how to write them as well.

  7. Do you have any idea how you would see Chinese characters? Would they get “assigned” a color according to their pronunciation or more by their shape? Maybe that’s an impossible question, but since I’m trying to memorize a few thousand characters… (and not getting very far, very fast) it’s on mind. :-)

  8. For some reason, the “ya” letter, at least from my looking at it right now (we’re not really familiar with Cyrillic) has all the same synaesthetic associations as the English R, but somehow more intensified. Mirroring a letter, for us, tends to either intensify or water down associations (i.e. b is a paler d, p is a paler q, and they both taste and feel less intense than their counterparts). Left-pointing letters seem to be more “intense” than right-pointing ones, although that may be just a coincidence.

    The *sound* ya itself, though, conjures up totally different associations that have to do partly with our associations with the English y+a. I wonder if we could break that association if we were to study Russian seriously. We still haven’t done enough in-depth study of languages with non-Roman alphabets to figure out if the associations we get for those letters are mostly “bleedthrough” from our associations with the corresponding Roman letters. For instance, the katakana character “fu” in Japanese is a light pink to us, which might be carried over from our association of that colour with the Roman letter F (although it doesn’t seem to take into account the darker tones of U).

    Then again, some of us get a lot more synaesthesia than others, which is a whole realm of neurological theorising in itself to be done by someone more qualified than me.

  9. Curious to know if you ever looked at the Hebrew alphabet–pretty much every letter of the aleph-bet has its equivalent in the alif-baa, often with almost the same name (like aleph/alif), although not every Arabic letter has a Hebrew equivalent, and some of what in Hebrew are called the doubles (sin, shin) are found in Arabic (siin, shiin), and some are not–and I spotted at least one Hebrew double (feh, peh) of which Arabic retains only the “F” member.
    Also, I understand that Arabic letters have different forms based on their location in the word (first letter, last letter, somewhere in the middle letter). (Hebrew only has five letters which have a different form for the last letter.) Do the colors stay constant no matter what the form may be?

  10. I don’t know Hebrew, but I imagine it would acquire similar colors as I learned the letters, if I did learn them. The Arabic letters are the same no matter what form they take, just as in English the letters are the same whether capital or small, printed or cursive, font differences, etc., as long as I can read them.

  11. The Arabic script is the second most widely used form of alphabetic writing in the world after the Roman alphabet. It probably originated some time in the fourth century AD and is descended from the Aramaic, through the Nabataean alphabet.

    The Arabic alphabet contains 28 consonants of which 22 were directly derived from the Aramaic-Nabatean branch of the North Semitic alphabet, and 6 were new.

    The Square Hebrew alphabet is derived from the Aramaic alphabet.

    If the Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew and Roman alphabets have a common ancestor it would be found in an alphabet which arose in the Middle East (what is now Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria) in the second millenium BC (1,000 to 1,999 BC).

    It is easy for me to think of the Roman alphabet as being the “natural” one.

  12. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and speak good Arabic. Intriguingly, the first things I learnt (beyond hello/goodbye) were verses from the Qur’an. This wasn’t because I was taught Qur’an formally (I didn’t start lessons in tafseer, or recitation, for a while) but because I heard it – outside mosques, in the marketplaces, in people’s homes. I think I picked it up so easily because it is chanted.

  13. How about the Russian Y (and I only call it that because that’s the closest English equivalent?) It is called “ui” or “yery/yeru/yerih”. A vowel, it makes a sound like “uh-ee” said REALLY fast. It’s a cross between the “a” in “about” and the “y” in “body”, with a slight “i” as in “fish” thrown in for good measure. It looks like bI.

    Sort of.

    What color is it to you? To me it’s dark cranberry red–rich and passionate, strong.

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