What is Ordinal-Linguistic Personification?

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP) is the automatic assignment of personalities to the members of ordinal lists, like Friday as a happy-go-lucky free-loader. This lesson will discuss OLP, how it is experienced, and what causes it to occur.

What is Ordinal-Linguistic Personification?

Have you ever had a discussion with the number 3? Been annoyed by January's grumpy attitude? Shaken your head at the ridiculous antics of the letter Y? Probably not, but if you have then you may be experiencing a phenomenon called ordinal-linguistic personification (or OLP, or personification), which is the automatic assignment of personalities to items on an ordinal list, such as the sequence of numbers between 1 and 10, the letters of the alphabet, or the days of the week.

OLP is an advanced form of synesthesia, which is when you automatically experience one sense as a result of being introduced to a certain stimulus. For example, people may automatically experience colors, aromas, sounds, tastes, or shapes in conjunction with stimuli like letters, numbers, colors, or music. There are cases where ordinals, like numbers or days of the week, produce one other sensory effect (someone might associate 7 with the color purple), but it's only OLP if someone forms complete personalities for ordinals (9 is a distinguished old gentleman who wears a navy blue suit and reads poetry).

How is OLP Experienced?

This is not a deliberate attempt on your part to make these list items more interesting. No, these personalities show up automatically, whether you want them to, or not. For example, if you visualized the days of the week sitting at a table around you, you would find that each one has an established personality. You would know the behavior to expect from this imaginary figure, and might be surprised to hear someone else describe that character differently. For you, each of the days is a particular kind of 'person.'

If you are experiencing OLP, those personalities are real to you--you really do perceive the connection between those list members and their associated personalities. This is why, over the years, your perceptions remain fairly consistent. You do not have to remember which personality belongs with which object, because they are always perceived that way in your mind.

Those who experience the OLP effect do not tend to be negatively affected by this condition. They often enjoy the personalities that their mind has attached to the list members, and may be delighted, amused, or even shocked by the characteristics that appear, like the letter L being an insufferable bore, the number 6 being a good and trusted friend, or the month of March being a suspicious and untrustworthy character. Generally speaking, the OLP condition is an interesting and relatively benign characteristic of certain human brains.

Scientific Studies

Experiences of OLP have been reported for over a hundred years. Psychologist Mary Calkins, first woman president of the American Psychological Association, studied various forms of synesthesia, reporting in 1893 that one patient called the number 5 a normal looking, selfish guy who has everything. Thomas Flournoy of the same era devoted a chapter in Des Phénomènes de Synopsie to the phenomenon, describing patients who saw entire families and relationship groups among the complex personalities of the single-digit numbers. More recently, Cytowic describes a patient who ascribes colors and personalities to ordinal digits, including a charcoal-gray letter d that is a male gentleman trickster.

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