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Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season I liked mostly for its use of the sound of language in imagery and as a narrative device.  I meant, things like this are just beautiful:

Consonants are the camels of language, proudly carrying their lingual loads. Vowels, however, are a different species, the fish that flash and glisten in the watery depths. Vowels are elastic and inconstant, fickle, and unfaithful.

Having mild synaesthesia, I’ve always associated sounds with colour. The luque-rimbaudiridescence of vowels I first found in Goldberg’s novel, and I fell in love with it: it was a little revelation, of the finding-words-for-a-hazy-thought variety. It is an idea I always use when trying to teach someone the joys, sorrows and mysteries of English pronunciation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Also, it doesn’t work terribly well with Italian. Our vowels, if they are fish at all, flash and glisten a good deal less. On the other hand, this makes them far less fickle, and Italian pronunciation is less prone to vagaries.

This doesn’t mean that our vowels – or French vowels, have no colours, as is shown in this poem by Arthur Rimbaud:


A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue : vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

Of course it’s different. This is nothing inherent to the vowel itself, and not even an imaginative way to describe an inherent quality of the sound – it is a matter of synaesthetic association, and it differs from person to person. My vowels have entirely different colours (and they change again when I pronounce them in another language), and I remember reading that Franz Liszt once rather vocally disagreed with another chromesthete composer about the colours of music notes.

I suspect that, unlike the iridescence of the English vowel, it may mean little  to the non-synaesthete reader, but I’m not sure. Still, they are both fascinating concepts, worth exploring, and using in teaching, writing and translating.


* Oliver Bernard’s early Sixties translation.