Synaesthetic metaphors are neither synaesthetic nor metaphorical

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Speakers often use metaphor when talking about the contents of perception. For example, a word such as sweet can be used to talk metaphorically about sensory impressions that are not directly related to taste, as in so-called “synaesthetic metaphors” such as sweet fragrance and sweet melody. In this chapter, I present arguments against the synaesthetic and metaphorical nature of such expressions. First, a look at the neuropsychological literature reveals that the phenomenon commonly called “synaesthesia” bears little resemblance to the metaphors investigated by linguists. Moreover, in contrast to synaesthesia as a neuropsychological phenomenon, most “synaesthetic” metaphors involve mappings between highly similar and perceptually integrated sensory modalities, such as taste and smell. Finally, combinations of words that appear to involve truly dissimilar sensory modalities, such as sweet melody, appear to perform largely evaluative functions. Thus, evaluation might be driving the use of these terms, more so than “synaesthetic” perception. I will then compare my analyses to the idea that many metaphors are grounded in primary metaphors and/or metonymies. All in all, this paper suggests that many and perhaps most “synaesthetic metaphors” are neither synaesthetic nor metaphorical. From a broader perspective, the case study of synaesthetic metaphors presented here fleshes out the way language and perception are related and how sensory content is encoded in the lexicon of human languages.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPerceptual metaphor
EditorsLaura J. Speed, Carolyn O'Meara, Lila San Roque, Asifa Majid
Publication statusPublished - 21 Feb 2019

Publication series

NameConverging Evidence in Language and Communication Research
PublisherJohn Benjamins


  • perception, Metaphor, senses, metonymy, figurative language, semantics, lexical semantics, meaning