Skip to main content Accessibility help

Color sound symbolism in natural languages



This paper investigates the underlying cognitive processes of sound–color associations by connecting perceptual evidence from research on cross-modal correspondences to sound symbolic patterns in the words for colors in natural languages. Building upon earlier perceptual experiments, we hypothesized that sonorous and bright phonemes would be over-represented in the words for bright and saturated colors. This hypothesis was tested on eleven color words and related concepts (redgreen, yellowblue, blackwhite, gray, nightday, darklight) from 245 language families. Textual data was transcribed into the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and each phoneme was described acoustically using high-quality IPA recordings. These acoustic measurements were then correlated with the luminance and saturation of each color obtained from cross-linguistic color-naming data in the World Color Survey. As expected, vowels with high brightness and sonority ratings were over-represented in the words for colors with high luminance, while sonorous consonants were more common in the words for saturated colors. We discuss these results in relation to lexicalization patterns and the links between iconicity and perceptual cross-modal associations.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Color sound symbolism in natural languages
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Color sound symbolism in natural languages
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Color sound symbolism in natural languages
      Available formats


This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Hide All
Adams, R. J. (1987). An evaluation of color preference in early infancy. Infant Behavior and Development 10(2), 143150.
Anikin, A. (2019). Soundgen: an open-source tool for synthesizing nonverbal vocalizations. Behavior Research Methods 51(2), 778792.
Anikin, A. & Johansson, N. (2019). Implicit associations between individual properties of color and sound. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 81(3), 764777.
Bankieris, K. & Simner, J. (2015). What is the link between synaesthesia and sound symbolism? Cognition 136, 186195.
Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms: their universality and evolution. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Blasi, D. E., Wichmann, S., Hammarström, H., Stadler, P. F. & Christiansen, M. H. (2016). Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(39), 1081810823.
Bürkner, P. C. (2017). brms: an R package for Bayesian multilevel models using Stan. Journal of Statistical Software 80(1), 128.
Cuskley, C., Dingemanse, M., Kirby, S. & van Leeuwen, T. M. (2019). Cross-modal associations and synesthesia: categorical perception and structure in vowel–color mappings in a large online sample. Behavior Research Methods 51(4), 16511675.
Derksen, R. (2008). Etymological dictionary of the Slavic inherited lexicon (Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series). Leiden, Boston: Brill.
Derksen, R. (2010). Etymological dictionary of the Baltic inherited lexicon. “Žalias”. Leiden: Brill. Online <> (last accessed 12 December 2018).
Diffloth, G. (1994). i: big, a: small. In Hinton, L., Nichols, J. & Ohala, J. J. (eds.), Sound symbolism (pp. 107114). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D. E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M. H. & Monaghan, P. (2015). Arbitrariness, iconicity, and systematicity in language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19(10), 603615.
Edmiston, P., Perlman, M. & Lupyan, G. (2018). Repeated imitation makes human vocalizations more word-like. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285(1874),
Fastl, H. & Zwicker, E. (2006). Psychoacoustics: facts and models (Vol. 22). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
Flaksman, M. (2017). Iconic treadmill hypothesis. In Bauer, M., Zirker, A., Fischer, O. & Ljungberg, C. (eds.), Dimensions of iconicity (Iconicity in Language and Literature 15) (pp. 1538). Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Gibson, J. J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In Shaw, R. E. & Bransford, J. (eds.), Perceiving, acting, and knowing (pp. 6782). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hamilton-Fletcher, G., Witzel, C., Reby, D. & Ward, J. (2017). Sound properties associated with equiluminant colours. Multisensory Research 30(3–5), 337362.
Hammarström, H., Forkel, R. & Haspelmath, M. (2017). Glottolog 3.0. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Online <>.
Haspelmath, M. & Tadmor, U. (eds.) (2009). Loanwords in the world’s languages: a comparative handbook. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter Mouton.
Hubbard, T. L. (1996). Synesthesia-like mappings of lightness, pitch, and melodic interval. American Journal of Psychology 109(2), 219238.
Imai, M., & Kita, S. (2014). The sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis for language acquisition and language evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 369(1651),
Imai, M., Kita, S., Nagumo, M. & Okada, H. (2008). Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning. Cognition 109(1), 5465.
Johansson, N., Anikin, A., Carling, G. & Holmer, A. (in press). The typology of sound symbolism: defining macro-concepts via their semantic and phonetic features. Linguistic Typology.
Johansson, N. & Carling, G. (2015). The de-iconization and rebuilding of iconicity in spatial deixis: an Indo-European case study. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 47(1), 432.
Jones, J. M., Vinson, D., Clostre, N., Zhu, A. L., Santiago, J. & Vigliocco, G. (2014). The bouba effect: sound-shape iconicity in iterated and implicit learning. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 36(36), 24592464.
Kay, P. & Maffi, L. (1999). Color appearance and the emergence and evolution of basic color lexicons. American Anthropologist 101(4), 743760.
Kim, H. W., Nam, H. & Kim, C. Y. (2017). [i] is lighter and more greenish than [o]: intrinsic association between vowel sounds and colors. Multisensory Research 31(5), 419437.
Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt psychology. New York: Liveright.
Kroonen, G. (2010). Etymological dictionary of Proto-Germanic. “Grōni-”. Leiden: Brill. Online <> (last accessed 12 December 2018).
Lawson, E., Stuart-Smith, J., Scobbie, J. M., Nakai, S., Beavan, D., Edmonds, F., Edmonds, I., Turk, A., Timmins, C., Beck, J., Esling, J., Leplatre, G., Cowen, S., Barras, W. & Durham, M. (2015). Seeing speech: an articulatory web resource for the study of Phonetics. University of Glasgow. Online <>.
Levinson, S. C. (2000). Yélî Dnye and the theory of basic color terms. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 10(1), 355.
Ludwig, V. U., Adachi, I. & Matsuzawa, T. (2011). Visuoauditory mappings between high luminance and high pitch are shared by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(51), 2066120665.
Ludwig, V. U. & Simner, J. (2013). What colour does that feel? Tactile–visual mapping and the development of cross-modality. Cortex 49(4), 10891099.
Lupyan, G. & Casasanto, D. (2015). Meaningless words promote meaningful categorization. Language and Cognition 7(2), 167193.
Marks, L. E. (1974). On associations of light and sound: the mediation of brightness, pitch, and loudness. American Journal of Psychology 87(1/2), 173188.
Marks, L. E. (1975). On colored-hearing synesthesia: cross-modal translations of sensory dimensions. Psychological Bulletin 82(3), 303311.
Marks, L. E. (1987). On cross-modal similarity: auditory–visual interactions in speeded discrimination. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 13(3), 384394.
Massaro, D. W. & Perlman, M. (2017). Quantifying iconicity’s contribution during language acquisition: implications for vocabulary learning. Frontiers in Communication 2(4).
Matisoff, J. A. (ed.) (2011). The Sino-Tibetan etymological dictionary and thesaurus. University of California, Berkeley. Online <> (last accessed 12 December 2018).
Metsmägi, I., Sedrik, M. & Soosaar, S.-E. (2012). ETY – Eesti etümoloogiasõnaraamat [Estonian etymology dictionary]. Eesti Keele Instituut. Online <> (last accessed 12 December 2018).
Miyahara, T., Koda, A., Sekiguchi, R. & Amemiya, T. (2012). A psychological experiment on the correspondence between colors and voiced vowels in non-synesthetes. Kansei Engineering International Journal 11(1), 2734.
Mok, P. P. K., Li, G., Li, J. J., Ng, H. T. Y. & Cheung, H. (2019). Cross-modal association between vowels and colours: a cross-linguistic perspective. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 145(4), 22652276.
Mondloch, C. J. & Maurer, D. (2004). Do small white balls squeak? Pitch–object correspondences in young children. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 4(2), 133136.
Moos, A., Smith, R., Miller, S. R. & Simmons, D. R. (2014). Cross-modal associations in synaesthesia: vowel colours in the ear of the beholder. i-Perception 5(2), 132142.
Newman, S. S. (1933). Further experiments in phonetic symbolism. American Journal of Psychology 45(1), 5375.
Nielsen, A. & Rendall, D. (2012). The source and magnitude of sound-symbolic biases in processing artificial word material and their implications for language learning and transmission. Language and Cognition 4(2), 115125.
Nygaard, L. C., Cook, A. E. & Namy, L. L. (2009). Sound to meaning correspondences facilitate word learning. Cognition 112(1), 181186.
Orlandatou, K. (2012). The role of pitch and timbre in the synaesthetic experience. In Cambouropoulos, E., Tsougras, C., Mavromatis, P. & Pastiadis, K., Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition and the 8th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (pp. 751758). Online <>.
Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q. D., Calude, A. S. & Meade, A. (2013). Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(21), 84718476.
Parise, C. V. & Pavani, F. (2011). Evidence of sound symbolism in simple vocalizations. Experimental Brain Research 214(3), 373380.
Parker, S. G. (2002). Quantifying the sonority hierarchy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Ramachandran, V. S. & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia – a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8(12), 334.
Regier, T., Kay, P. & Cook, R. S. (2005). Focal colors are universal after all. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102(23), 83868391.
Rhee, S. (2019). Lexicalization patterns in color naming in Korean. In Raffaelli, I., Katunar, D. & Kerovec, B. (eds), Lexicalization patterns in color naming: a cross-linguistic perspective (pp. 109128). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Sapir, E. (1929). A study in phonetic symbolism. Journal of Experimental Psychology 12(3), 225239.
Saussure, F. (1916). Course in general linguistics. Duckworth: London.
Schubert, E., Wolfe, J. & Tarnopolsky, A. (2004). Spectral centroid and timbre in complex, multiple instrumental textures. In Lipscomb, S. D., Ashley, R., Gjerdingen, R. O. & Webster, P. (eds), Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (pp. 112116). Online <>.
Sidhu, D. M., & Pexman, P. M. (2018). Five mechanisms of sound symbolic association. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 25(5), 16191643.
Skelton, A. E., Catchpole, G., Abbott, J. T., Bosten, J. M. & Franklin, A. (2017). Biological origins of color categorization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(21), 55455550.
Spence, C. (2011). Crossmodal correspondences: a tutorial review. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 73(4), 971995.
Sugita, Y. (2004). Experience in early infancy is indispensable for color perception. Current Biology 14(14), 12671271.
Swadesh, M. (1971). The origin and diversification of language (ed. post mortem by Sherzer, J.). London: Transaction Publishers.
Tamariz, M., Roberts, S. G., Martínez, J. I. & Santiago, J. (2018). The interactive origin of iconicity. Cognitive Science 42(1), 334349.
Tufvesson, S. (2011). Analogy-making in the Semai sensory world. The Senses and Society 6(1), 8695.
Valenta, K., Kalbitzer, U., Razafimandimby, D., Omeja, P., Ayasse, M., Chapman, C. A. & Nevo, O. (2018). The evolution of fruit colour: phylogeny, abiotic factors and the role of mutualists. Scientific Reports 8(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-32604-x
Walker, L., Walker, P., & Francis, B. (2012). A common scheme for cross-sensory correspondences across stimulus domains. Perception 41(10), 11861192.
Walker, P. (2012). Cross-sensory correspondences and cross talk between dimensions of connotative meaning: visual angularity is hard, high-pitched, and bright. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 74(8), 17921809.
Walker, P., Bremner, J. G., Mason, U., Spring, J., Mattock, K., Slater, A. & Johnson, S. P. (2010). Preverbal infants’ sensitivity to synaesthetic cross-modality correspondences. Psychological Science 21(1), 2125.
Ward, J., Huckstep, B. & Tsakanikos, E. (2006). Sound–colour synaesthesia: To what extent does it use cross-modal mechanisms common to us all? Cortex 42(2), 264280.
Wescott, R. W. (1975). Tonal iconicity in Bini colour terms. African Studies 34(3), 185192.
Westermann, D. H. (1927). Laut, Ton und Sinn in westafrikanischen Sudansprachen. In Boas, F. (ed.), Festschrift Meinhof (pp. 315328). Glückstadt, Hamburg: Gedruckt bei J. J. Augustin.
Wichmann, S., Holman, E. W. & Brown, C. H. (2010). Sound symbolism in basic vocabulary. Entropy 12(4), 844858.
Witzel, C. & Franklin, A. (2014). Do focal colors look particularly ‘colorful’? Journal of the Optical Society of America A 31(4), A365A374.
Wrembel, M. (2009). On hearing colours – cross-modal associations in vowel perception in a non-synaesthetic population. Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 45(4), 595612.
Xiao, Y., Kavanau, C., Bertin, L. & Kaplan, E. (2011). The biological basis of a universal constraint on color naming: cone contrasts and the two-way categorization of colors. PloS one 6(9).


Color sound symbolism in natural languages



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed