People ask me from time to time how I can pick up languages so quickly. My best guess is that it's down to a very high-order synaesthesia. I think we're calling them 'ideaesthesias' now. The basic form of synaesthesia is crossed wires between two senses; the classic case is of letters or numbers acquiring their own colors. Typically, one says that a synaesthetic 'sees' R as yellow, or something like that, but it's not quite that literal. The R flickers, as if one eye is seeing the real black ink it's printed in, and the other one sees it in yellow, and they go back and forth on dominance. If you've ever done those spot-the-difference puzzles by just crossing your eyes and superimposing them like a stereogram, then you've seen the way the differences sort of shimmer or glitter -- it's much like that.

[If you haven't ever done a spot-the-difference puzzle like that, then congratulations on learning a new trick. It's a brilliant way to cheat. The different bits stand out like a sore thumb, you can clear the whole thing in seconds.]

I don't have the classic color-grapheme one, and the color-music one is irregular and the color parts work a lot like my eidetic snapshots, i.e., they exist on a plane that doesn't break into my regular visual field. (In contrast to the migraine auras, which are very annoyingly much in my regular visual field, when they aren't eating holes in it.) But I do have a lot at a slightly higher order of abstraction that work a lot like that, where one thing appears to be equally, and usually impossibly, in two states at the same time. One of them, which I think is mainly responsible for the languages thing, is that I perceive grammar as an inherent quality of a word.

You can look at an object and say it's kind of brownish or orangey. I look at words and think they're kind of nounish or adverby. It works even when I don't know a whole lot of the language I'm looking at, as long as I can read the script well enough to pattern-spot. There's just a sense of whether something should be used in its adjective or adverb form in that particular place. There is an element of practice and skill to it, but I wouldn't have anything to practice if I didn't already have some inkling of what things went in what category. Other people get told what words are in what box, but I feel like they go in certain boxes.

Think about apples. Apples come in red and green. Fuji apples are red. Granny Smith apples are green. Pink Lady apples are kind of pink-y, but that's way closer to red than green, so they go in the "red apple" bowl with the Fujis. Golden Delicious apples are strikingly yellow, but we don't traditionally think of apples as yellow, so they get filed away in the "green apple" bowl with the Granny Smiths.

Now imagine that you lived in a world where nobody saw color. A few people saw color, somewhere, and wrote down all kinds of things about apples that nobody reads anymore, on account of it's incredibly boring. You just sort of have to memorize which apples go in the "redapple" bowl, and which ones go in the "greenapple" bowl. There's probably some reasoning or something, but it's not relevant to anything in your everyday life. "Redapple" and "greenapple" don't mean much of anything to you; they're just the names of the bowls apples go in. Someone gave you a textbook that told you which were which sometime in the third grade, and that quiz was the last time anyone has ever asked you about it.

Most people see grammar categories like nouns and verbs as "redapple" and "greenapple". My brain says the actual nouns and verbs are 'red' and 'green'. It's not just a noun, it has an ineffable quality of nounness that cannot be separated from the word. I can't un-perceive any of it and when people ask me to explain it I tend to wave my hands around and go 'because it is', because seriously, you try explaining red to a congenital achromat. In terms of brain systems, it's just a bunch of chaotically crossed wires -- it just so happens that this short circuit is really handy, and I keep using it, which keeps the pathway reinforced.


  1. How does crossing your eyes superimpose two pictures? I get two expanding to three or four, depending how far I cross my eyes.

    1. Uncross them, then? I dunno. Do whatever it is you do to make those random dot stereograms pop. I frankly don't know what it is I'm doing; it's one of those things, like matching audio tones, that I can do only if I don't think about it too much.

      (And also I do it weirdly. Stereograms usually pop into the picture plane for me rather than out of it, if I can get them to work at all.)

    2. Random dot stereograms? (googles) Oh, THOSE things. I can't see those at all (I mean, of course I see the dots, but they never make a picture). I just figured there was some trick no one ever told me because they couldn't analyze how they did it, but maybe it's something my eyes don't do.


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