SYNESTHESIA (from Greek synaisthesis “shared feeling, simultaneous sensation”) — in psychology and psychophysiology, the experience of a sensation in one sensory due to a stimulus from another sensory, or the merging of the experiences from various domains of perception, during which the features of one modality are transferred to another [Рубинштейн, 1998: 192]. For example, when dealing with coloured hearing, we can speak of the quality transfer of the visual domain to the hearing domain. Numerous studies connect synesthesia to language, implying that intermodal mixture occurring in the human brain leads to the language “reacting to it via specific words combinations” [Лурия 1971: 134].

In linguistics synesthesia is understood as a “special type of the name transfer based on the association between meanings”, where “two meanings correspond to the experiences located at two different levels of perception” [Ibid.]. In other words, lexical units connected to one sensory domain are used to define the sensations and perceptions related to another sensory domain (silvery emptiness, damp humming dark, velvety voice; sweet warmth, sorbet colours).

S. Ullmann was the first to see synesthesia as semantic universal and he viewed this notion as a subtype of metaphorization. He distinguished between two categories of sensory domains: the primitive (touch, temperature, taste, smell) and the highly organized (hearing and vision) domains. The analysis of the synesthetic combinations from several languages resulted in the conclusion that meaning transfer goes from the lower sensory domains to the higher. This idea was confirmed by G. Williams’s research [Williams 1976], who offered the following scheme of the connections between the sensory fields:


This scheme allows the creation of numerous typologies of synesthetic transfers that were specially popular in Russian Lingustics of the second half of the 20thcentury. Modern studies  continue to more accurately define and broaden the boundaries of synesthesia. For example, synesthesia can go beyond the traditional sensory domains and  expand through the associations between abstract notions and sensory impressions [Bretones-Callejas,2005] (blue fear, blue will; a salty dampness). S. V. Voronin introduces the term “synesthemia” to define this kind of synesthesia. He argues that it is a psychophysiological universal, underlying the linguistic universal, which functions in sensory-emotional domain (sensations→emotions) [Воронин 1982: 82].

Synesthetic metaphor (SM) is a special case of synesthesia. It’s a language metaphor that verbally marks the intersensory transfers (sensory domain→ sensory domain; sensation→emotion; sensation→sensation) [Ульман 1970; Телия 1986; Елина 2002]. S. Day, president of the American Synesthesia Association, states that SM does not differ from other types of metaphors and functions like other metaphors. Moreover, they can be mediated by semantic processed and vary across cultures. In general, studies of SM focus on the  metaphoric nature of cognition, and they are directly connected to the problems of embodiment and the body in the mind.

Further reading

Воронин С. В. Синестезия и звукосимволизм/С. В. Воронин// Психолингвистические проблемы семантики. — М.: Наука, 1983. — С.120-131.

Bretones Callejas,C. What’s Your Definition of Synaesthesia: A Matter of Language or Thought? [Электронный ресурс] — Режим доступа: or

Cytowic, Richard E.Synesthesia. A Union of the Senses. — MIT Press, Cambridge—London, 2002.

Day, S. Synaesthesia and Synaesthetic Metaphors. [Электронный ресурс] — Режим доступа:

Day, S.What Synaesthesia Is (And Is Not) In: McKevitt, Paul—a Nulla, Sean—Mulvihill, Conn (eds.): Language, Vision, and Music. — Benjamins. Amsterdam— Philadelphia, 171–181; 2002.

Ullmann, S.The Principles of Semantics. — Glasgow: Jackson, Son and Co, 1957.

Ekaterina Subbotina

Translated by Vadim Zaretsky