Ordinal linguistic personification and personification in general

Personification is the attribution of human characteristics and qualities to inanimate objects or concepts: gender, personality, human appearance, clothes and accessories, likes and dislikes, feelings and relationships with the other objects or concepts in their group. When these associations are considered a type of synesthesia they are usually formed during childhood and are stable, tending to show no variation over the synesthete’s lifetime.
The term used to describe this phenomenon as applied to series or sequences of concepts is ordinal linguistic personification, often abbreviated to OLP. The less frequent names “sequence personality” and “social synesthesia” have also been used. Letter personification and number personification are two of its most common manifestations.

What is the prevalence of ordinal linguistic personification?

For the moment there are no conclusive figures, but it seems to be a relatively common type of synesthesia. An interesting study by Amin et. al (2011) found it to be very common among the synesthetic population: 33% of the 248 synesthetes interviewed reported attributing gender and/or personality to letters or numbers. However, on repeating the test some months later, only 10% described their personalities in a sufficiently similar way to be considered genuine grapheme personifiers. Sean Day and Julia Simner/Emma Holenstein suggest a prevalence of just under 5%. However, judging by the enormous numbers of detailed personal accounts that are readily described on enquiring about it, I suspect that the figure is likely to be higher than 10%, or 20% even, and that it is actually one of the most common types of synesthesia. The difficulty of designing a simple, reliable test to determine the degree of consistency like those that exist for grapheme-colour, for example, stands in the way of obtaining a representative figure.

When is it considered synesthesia?

Some types of personification are considered synesthesia, despite showing some differences from what is normally accepted as such. These differences are firstly that the synesthetic concurrent is figurative or conceptual, while synesthesia normally triggers more abstract materialisations such as colours or geometric shapes, and secondly because it appears that it is not exclusively experienced by synesthetes, although it seems to be much more common and manifest more strongly in synesthetes than in non-synesthetes. (For types of personification that are not considered synesthesia, see the description below.)

These are the main types of personification considered synesthesia: They all consist of personification of elements in series or sequences. The links lead to the page about each type.

Grapheme personification



Personification of other sequences

Days and months


Objects or other elements forming part of series or sequences

An interesting example in this category is:

Cutlery personification (knives, forks and spoons)

Personification of musical sequences

Notes, chords, key, timbre and other musical sequences

And when is it not synesthesia?

Here are some types of personification that are not considered synesthesia:

- Pareidolia: automatically recognising faces and other human traits in inanimate figures, such as faces formed by the doors and windows of houses or by cracks or marks on the wall, human figures in clouds or on a piece of burnt toast, etc. This is more connected with pattern recognition, or a memory-prediction reflex reaction.

- Empathy for inanimate objects: this often occurs with sensitive people in general, people on the autism spectrum and synesthetes. It consists of frequently having attitudes such as feeling sad for objects that have been left alone, the desire to protect an object left out in the cold, attempting to treat all objects equally and not favouring one over others, etc. It is a sensitive, endearing habit that can give rise to perfectly innocuous behaviour such as buying the last product left on the shelf in a shop or one with torn packaging “because nobody wants it”, or becoming very attached to one’s personal belongings, making it difficult to get rid of them when they are no longer useful. However in a few more serious cases it can contribute to disorders such as compulsive hoarding or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

- Animistic thinking: attributing human characteristics to stuffed toys, dolls and other much-loved possessions, as small children do before they learn to correctly distinguish between the animate and the inanimate. When someone gives their car or computer a name, it is probably a manifestation of this type of thinking, for example. It can only be clearly considered a type of synesthesia if it applies to series or sequences of objects, and in this case it would normally occur in people who already have other types of synesthesia.

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