In my world, letters and numbers are alive. OK, maybe not quite “alive” but they do have animate properties. Things like genders, personalities, and interpersonal relationships. And, apparently, I am not the only one with this “weird” way of associating ordinal objects.
Although, for the longest time, I thought that either everyone experienced this or that I was all alone in this, so I never, ever, ever told anyone. Then a few years ago, I sought answers on Google and learned that it is a known “thing” that affects up to 1% of the population. Then I finally met someone “like me” and we “bonded” over the shared experience – including the early reluctance to talk about it until finding others on the interweb*.
The phenomenon is a form of synaesthesia called “ordinal-linguistic personification” (OLP) and is defined** as “the involuntary association of animate qualities such as gender/personality to linguistic units such as letters/numbers/days” – although my OLP associations are limited to just the first two.
This form of synaesthesia is “associative”, meaning there is a feeling of connection between the numbers/letters and their characteristics. The better-known “projective” forms are where there is a visual connection that projects colours, sounds, or shapes onto numbers, letters, and other things. Although some people have a combination of the two forms (but not me).
But this post isn’t about what synaesthesia or, specifically, ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP) is from a scientific or research perspective. It’s about my personal experience of OLP. So, I’ll leave the formal “what is OLP” stuff at that, and I’ll move on to the “me, me, me” stuff now. (This is, after all, a blog about me.)
There’s a little hesitation in sharing this because I know many people won’t understand. And I fear it will be interpreted by some as “hearing voices” or a belief that letters and numbers “speak” to me. But it’s not that. I don’t hear them; they don’t speak to me. I don’t even see them as anything other than their basic symbols. They are just what they are. And I didn’t create these personalities and traits; I simply “observe” them as they present themselves to me.
But why? Why does it happen? When does it happen? (Simple answer: No one knows.)
Although, I have often wondered if it is related to my lifelong dyslexia (and years of speech therapy) or a separate “quirk” altogether. As for “when”, I know that I’ve been acutely aware of it for most of my life. Indeed, when I began Kindergarten, I was introduced to numbers and letters in a formal learning environment for the first time and I was not at all impressed with the “superhero” characters that were attributed to each of them. There were blow-up characters, similar in materials to a beach ball, in the classroom that made the alphabet look like a group of superheroes. But the superhero costume had nothing to do with the letter itself. It all seemed so arbitrary and very contrary to what I knew of the letters.
By First Grade, the use of anthropomorphism for letters and numbers at school went to the wayside, and I only ever reflected on the superhero numbers when I recalled specific events in my Kindergarten memories. For example, when I think about the classroom, I can see them all lined up along the wall near the play area. But I couldn’t tell you what colour they were or what costumes they wore. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now.
Descriptions of the single digits are at the end of this post, you can jump straight to that section here.
But I don’t “see” the characteristics. There isn’t a visual representation that suggests build, colour, dress style, or similar external descriptors. Although I do sense size in the form of “presence”. For example, “5” is very confident and presents himself as such (yes, “5” is a masculine number) whereas “3” is timid and somewhat “cowers” to numbers that they (a child of unknown gender) feel intimidated by. However, I don’t know what they wear or how they accessorise, nor do I know what colour their hair or eyes are – or, indeed, if they even have hair or eyes!
In addition to these individual characteristics, there are interpersonal relationships that really “bring them to life”. Using “5” and “3” as an example again, “5” plays a protective “big brother” role for “3”, who feels overshadowed by the other digits – and a bit bullied by some, too.
Only the single digits (0-9) have these attributes, not the larger numbers they create. The digits team up to make larger numbers through maths (multiplying 4×5 for 20) or by standing together (1+0+5 join hands to make 105). But 20 and 105 don’t have personalities; they are just outputs.
This is the same for letters: Individual letters have personalities and such, but words are simply outputs. For example, “E” is a world-famous superhero, but the word HELP doesn’t have a personality of its own, it’s just made by combining personalities.
However, the alphabet is considerably more nuanced and (in some ways) “messy” because the different interpersonal relationships depend on a range of factors. Different letters get along (or don’t) based on who else is in the room at any given time. Sometimes, a set of letters might be best friends but if other letters are present, they might turn on each other. Indeed, some letters are very loyal and will always stay true whilst others are very shady and will betray a “friend” without an ounce of guilt. Some letters will morph a bit, not because they are disloyal but because the situation calls for it.
For example, “L” is a leader and is quite bold. He sits in the middle of the gang, but he is looked at with admiration and other letters look to him for strength. But he will happily play a meeker part when needed. Like when he joins forces to make the word “tortilla”. Even though there are two of him, he gladly gives “T” all the credit. Even when he doubles up and gets credit, he doesn’t get cocky about it. No, “L” is more than happy to sound “normal” rather than insisting that he gets double credit.
“A”, on the other hand, is a drama queen. She gets really bitchy if she is pronounced “wrong” and hates that other letters show up and force her into different roles. And when “N” wants to pair up, she gets really snarky about it and lashes out when people try to force a relationship between the two based on an imperfect “vowels rule”.
So yeah, letters are super complex! So much so that I won’t even attempt to summarise them for you. However, I have provided some basic details of my observations about the digits 0-9 below.
OK then. What about you? Do you have OLP or some other form of synaesthesia? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below or as a private message if you prefer. And I’d love to hear from those without these experiences, too, if you have something to share on the topic.
Meet 0 – 9: “The Digits”
0Zero doesn’t really care. They are genderless and have a “whatever” attitude. They know that they are an important member of the number family and that, without them, no one will get beyond 9. They know that people joke about being a big fat “zero”, but they are too busy being useful to care or to get caught up in the pettiness. 0 has a preference for wearing their “sash” any time letters are around because they do not like being mistaken for an “o”. Although they would like to wear the sash all the time, they don’t want to seem pretentious.
1One is a little cocky, but also very humble. They generally present without gender but can sometimes show greater levels of feminine or masculine traits. Like 0, 1 knows that they are an extremely useful member of the number family and understands their importance in the world*. Their mix of pride and humility might come from their importance. 1 is very busy and, despite lyrics that suggest otherwise, is never lonely.
2Two is also genderless, but if “forced” to prescribe gender I would say they’re like a very young boy. Not childish, but young, easygoing, and a little playful. They get along well with everyone but 1 is their best friend. They look to 5 as a mentor and to 9 with awe. They sometimes feel undervalued as a “quick” way of counting and wish they were taken more seriously than they are.
3Three is a genderless child. They are very meek and timid and generally unsure of life. Despite being a “bigger” number than 0, 1, and 2, they feel like the smallest and most undeveloped in the number family. 3 looks to 5 as a protective “big brother”. 8 and 9 also look out for 3 when it suits them. 3 would like more responsibility but doesn’t have the courage to ask for it.
4Four is a “mean girl” who just wants to be popular but her bitchyness gets in the way. She is very jealous of everyone else – and more so, she is jealous of the relationships everyone else has. Ultimately, she wants 5’s reputation but she isn’t willing to help others. She looks up to 7 and wishes 7 would join forces with her to be mean to 3. But 7, whilst not really interested in helping or hindering others, just wants to be left alone – certain that they will one day be given more power, simply due to their proximity to 9.
5Five is a cool guy. He doesn’t have a best-number friend, but he makes all the other numbers feel like they are his favourite. 7 is a little jealous of him and 1 feels that they are equals, despite the difference in hierarchical status. 5 is extremely protective of 3 in a “big brother” way and is the only number who will stand up to 9, who can be quite arrogant. As an aside, 5 and “E” are good friends – despite being on opposite sides of the letter/number divide.
6Six is in a tough spot. He’s in his late teens and is emotionally mature but he can’t seem to shake the “you’re just a kid” rhetoric he gets from others – especially from 7 and 8, and on occasion from 4 who is just jealous of 6 because he is so close to 5 and everyone else likes him to some degree or another. 4 and 6 work well together and get on, but there is that bit of competition and jealously from 4. Oh! And 4 is especially upset that 6 has taken such a caring interest in 3. Like most numbers, 6 wants to see 3 do well and is always encouraging them along.
7Seven is of feminine presentation but not in a stereotypical “girly” way. She is a strong female presence with leadership skills and high intelligence. She wants to have more power than she does, although she wants the power for her own self-esteem and doesn’t have any malicious intent. 7 is jealous of the admiration that 5 gets because she wants to be adored.
8Eight is a braggart. He feels that he is a gatekeeper for 9 and has a sense of power because of it. He can be a bit boorish because of his inflated sense of value, but he is also a good partner to others and is especially kind to his friend, the timid number 3. He and 5 team up on occasion to remind others to be nice and he is generally never mean to others.
9Nine is of masculine presentation. Much like 0, 9 isn’t interested in the wider family dynamics. He wants to live his life in peace but is often the mediator when other numbers are struggling. He sees himself as the head of the number family and reminds larger numbers that they are merely a combination of his family unit, The Digits. He doesn’t have an ego about this, but he is very protective of his family and wants to make sure they are appreciated for their simplicity.
* If you want to see grown people argue over what personalities different numbers/letters have, Google is your friend!
** Simner, J., & Hubbard, E. (2006). Variants of synesthesia interact in cognitive tasks: Evidence for implicit associations and late connectivity in cross-talk theories. Neuroscience, 143(3), 805–814. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2006.08.018
*** When the BBC documentary “The Story of 1” came out in 2005, I was excited to see that some of the personality traits I have ascribed to 1 have some historical relevance. And yes, I am the kind of person who watches documentaries about numbers.