The Senses in Language and Culture

The Language & Cognition group at the MPI for Psycholinguistics will present a session on The Senses in Language and Culture at the 108th AAA meeting in Philadelphia, December 2-6. Come visit us on Friday morning from 8.00-11.45 in the Liberty Ballroom A, on the 3rd Floor of the Downtown Marriott.

What? The Senses in Language and Culture, an SLA-sponsored session
When? Friday December 4th, 8.00-11.45
Where? Downtown Marriott, Liberty Ballroom A, 3rd Floor
Who? Stephen C. Levinson & Asifa Majid (organizers); Asifa Majid, N.J. Enfield, Niclas Burenhult, Gunter Senft, Clair E. Hill, Hilário de Sousa, Connie de Vos, Shakila Shayan, Ozge Ozturk, Mark Sicoli, Sylvia Tufvesson, Mark Dingemanse, Olivier Le Guen, Penelope Brown (participants); Lawrence Hirschfeld, William F. Hanks (discussants)

Session Abstract

(See also the program and abstracts for individual talks below.)

How are the senses structured by the languages we speak, the cultures we inhabit? To what extent is the encoding of perceptual experiences in languages a matter of how the mind/brain is “wired-up” and to what extent is it a question of local cultural preoccupation? This symposium brings together the results of a large-scale cross-linguistic project focused on the encoding of the senses in language and culture, organized by the Language and Cognition group, at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen.

The “Language of Perception” project tests the hypothesis that some perceptual domains may be more “ineffable” – i.e. difficult or impossible to put into words – than others. While cognitive scientists have assumed that proximate senses (olfaction, taste, touch) are more ineffable than distal senses (vision, hearing), anthropologists have illustrated the exquisite variation and elaboration the senses achieve in different cultural milieus. The project is designed to test whether the proximate senses are universally ineffable – suggesting an architectural constraint on cognition – or whether they are just accidentally so in Indo-European languages, so expanding the role of cultural interests and preoccupations.

To address this question, a standardized set of stimuli of color patches, geometric shapes, simple sounds, tactile textures, smells and tastes have been used to elicit descriptions from speakers of more than a dozen languages. The results of this investigation will be presented in the first presentation of the symposium. The stimulus materials also serve as a jumping-off point for more detailed analysis of the relations between the senses and language and culture provided by the remaining talks. The talks in the first half of the symposium explore “variation in space and time”. Speakers explore how semantic categories for the senses are influenced by individual variation, cultural expertise, and by the influences of contact histories with other social groups, languages and the forces of globalization.

The second half of the symposium explores “iconicity” in how the senses are expressed. Speakers explore how iconicity in signed and spoken languages is utilized to convey sensory experiences. Particularly revealing are ideophones (also known as “expressives”), a special class of words used to convey a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions. These are found abundantly in Asian and African languages, as well as in some South American languages but are rare in Indo-European languages, and provide a unique window into the senses, language and culture. Straddling boundaries that have long been considered self-evident in Western thought (such as perception vs. emotion, or the traditional five-senses model), ideophones provide a unique view of cultural meaning systems relating to perception and sensation. Some languages such as the Mayan ones make use of structural iconicity to achieve similar cross-modal effects, compounding roots from different domains or using special derivations to signal affective overlays. These linguistic systems challenge preconceptions of limits to the expressive power of language.


Individual talks are linked to abstracts. Times can be found on the AAA program.

Asifa Majid & Stephen C. Levinson An overview of the senses across languages and cultures
Nick J. Enfield The senses in contact: A study of Mainland Southeast Asian languages
Niclas Burenhult & Asifa Majid Smell across space, time, and culture: The case of Aslian (Austroasiatic, Malay Peninsula)
Gunter Senft Talking about color and taste on the Trobriand Islands: A diachronic comparative study
Clair Hill Ineffability and ‘gaps’ in the linguistic encoding of Umpila visual perception
Hilário de Sousa Changes in the society and perception in Cantonese
Lawrence Hirschfeld (discussant)
Connie de Vos Iconicity and Variation: Conventionalisation of Color Terms in Small versus Large Signing Communities
Shakila Shayan & Ozge Ozturk & Mark Sicoli The thickness of pitch: Crossmodal iconicity in three unrelated languages; Farsi, Turkish and Zapotec
Sylvia Tufvesson Analogy making in the Semai sensory world
Mark Dingemanse Ideophones and the senses: The interplay of language, culture, and the perceptual world in a West-African society
Olivier le Guen The Hidden Grammar of Yucatec Maya: Senses, Language and Perception
Penelope Brown ‘It tastes cold-soft-soft’: Cross-modal compounding in Tzeltal perception terms
William F. Hanks (discussant)

Abstracts of individual talks

These abstracts are also available on the AAA Program for registered participants.


Asifa Majid & Stephen C. Levinson: An overview of the senses across languages and cultures

Why is it that language is good at describing certain states of affairs (e.g., the kinship relation between me and my grandfather), but very limited in others (e.g., describing smells)? Ineffability – the difficulty or impossibility of putting certain experiences into words – is a topic that has been relatively neglected within the cognitive sciences. But limits on the ability to express sensorial experiences in words can tell us important things about how the mind works, how different modalities do or do not talk to one another, and how language does, or does not, interact with other mental faculties. This talk presents the results of a large-scale cross-linguistic investigation of how different perceptual domains are coded across languages and cultures. Speakers from more than a dozen languages – including three sign-languages – were asked to describe a standardized set of stimuli of color patches, geometric shapes, simple sounds, tactile textures, smells and tastes. The languages are typologically, genetically and geographically diverse, representing a wide-range of cultures. We examine how codable the different sensory modalities are by comparing how consistent speakers are in how they describe the materials in each modality. The results suggest that differential codability may be at least partly the result of cultural preoccupation. This shows that the senses are not just physiological phenomena but are constructed through linguistic, cultural and social practices.


Nick J. Enfield: The senses in contact: A study of Mainland Southeast Asian languages

Historical contact between social groups is well known to cause convergence not only in patterns of cultural practice, but also in the structure of unrelated languages. While a fair amount is known about convergence in grammatical form, less is known about convergence in the semantic distinctions made in the lexicon. Research on the linguistic effects of culture contact often cites isolated examples (e.g., Matisoff has noted that Southeast Asian lexical semantic systems include ‘many verbs for different kinds of carrying’, and lexical idioms like ‘insects in the teeth’ for dental decay, or ‘pig crazy’ for epileptic), but little systematic work has been done. To make a move in this direction, in this talk I compare lexical semantic distinctions in the semantics of the senses in several languages of mainland Southeast Asia, focusing on some of the perceptual categories under investigation in a large-scale comparative project being undertaken by researchers in the Language and Cognition group at the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen. Special attention is paid to data from Lao (Tai), Kri (Vietic), and Cantonese, within the domains of taste, smell, and color.


Niclas Burenhult & Asifa Majid: Smell across space, time, and culture: The case of Aslian (Austroasiatic, Malay Peninsula)

It has been claimed that odor is relatively less codable in languages than vision, audition or other sensory modalities. On this basis, researchers have attempted to draw conclusions about how representational systems in the mind/brain are organized. Aslian-speaking communities (Austroasiatic, Malay Peninsula) are a counter-example to this claim. This talk provides evidence that Aslian communities are “smell cultures” with an elaborated set of smell distinctions in their lexica. Comparison of smell vocabularies across the diverse Aslian cultures suggests these distinctions do not have any relation to particular cultural practices but are linguistically motivated and remarkably stable across space, time and ecologies.


Gunter Senft: Talking about color and taste on the Trobriand Islands: A diachronic comparative study

How stable is the lexicon for perceptual experiences? This talk presents results on how the Trobrianders talk about taste and color, and how these have changed over the years. In 1904 Charles S. Myers published a paper on the taste vocabulary of the Torres Strait Islanders. In 2008 I continued fieldwork on the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea with the aim of researching the Trobriand Islanders’ language of perception. Contrasting my findings on taste categories in Kilivila with Myers’ work reveals that many of his original results can still be verified. The Trobriand Islanders have never developed a sophisticated cuisine – and their simple ways of preparing their food is mirrored in their vocabulary on taste. However, some effects of globalization have reached the Trobrianders and get reflected in their taste vocabulary. In 1983 I collected data on Kilivila color terms. The second part of my talk compares these data with the data I collected 2008. Many of the predictions I made about the development of color categories in 1983 were right. However, although the strategy to use color terms that refer to the plants, fruits and soils used to make colors for dyeing grass-skirts does not play an important role any more because women use chemical colors for dying their skirts these days, these color terms are still used. Kilivila provides evidence that terms used for talking about color and taste are relatively stable over time, with only a few effects of language change induced by language contact.


Clair Hill: Ineffability and ‘gaps’ in the linguistic encoding of Umpila visual perception

In what ways do language systems manage areas of ineffability and semantic gaps? This paper considers this issue with regard to the linguistic encoding of visual perceptual modalities in Umpila, a Paman Australian language. In Umpila, areas of ineffability in the visual domain are supported by salient domains outside the perceptual realm and by other communicative resources. For example, kin categories are put to work by speakers to fill ‘gaps’ in the color spectrum, and simultaneous co-speech gesture is employed to add shape specificity to a simple two term ‘big-small’ lexical distinction.

This paper compares data from three contexts – responses to MPI ‘Language of Perception’ stimuli, supplementary tasks, and conversational narratives. Based on these comparative datasets, two broad types of relative perceptual ineffability can be posited: (1) domains with established systems of domain-specific lexicon – the ineffability here, is that such systems do not consistently map across an entire domain’s perceptual space; and (2) domains which employ all-purpose vocabulary (e.g. antonym pairs like good-bad, big-small) that can be readily applied across an entire perceptual domain, but lack the codable precision that domain-specific lexicon affords a speaker.

A comparison of types of ineffability and ‘gap’ filling strategies will be used to address a number of wider questions, such as: What is the relative resilience of perceptual categories in the midst of language obsolescence and cultural innovation given the current rapid language/cultural change situation in Aboriginal Australia? What is the relationship between areas of poor and rich linguistic and cultural elaboration?

Hilário de Sousa: Changes in the society and perception in Cantonese

Enormous changes happened in the Cantonese society in the last fifty years, from a relatively third world and illiterate society, to a relatively first world and highly literate society. Western-style education created a shift in the categorisation of perceptual categories; while some are enriched, especially in the distal senses, others are suppressed, especially in the proximal senses. As part of the ‘Categories across language and cognition’ project, I conduced a set of perceptual experiments on Cantonese. The Cantonese data that I collected reveal noticeable differences in the language of perception between older and younger speakers. With colours, older speakers uniformly provided the six basic colour terms of hung4 ‘red’, caang2 ‘orange’, wong4 ‘yellow’, luk6 ‘green’, laam4 ‘blue’ and zi2 ‘purple’, whereas many younger speakers provided two extra basic colour terms: ceng1 ‘light green’ and juk6 ‘peach’. With shapes, younger speakers tended to use terms which explicitly express the 3D-ness of 3D shapes (e.g. kau4tai2 ‘sphere’), whereas older speakers tend to use terms which do not explicitly distinguish the 2D-ness versus 3D-ness of the shapes (e.g. jyun4jing4 ‘round shape’/ ‘circle’ for a sphere). On the other hand, older speakers outperform younger speakers with gustational and olfactional terms. For instance, younger speakers do not distinguish the umami taste (the glutamate taste) from the salty taste, and tend to be less certain about the meanings of the numerous bad-smell terms in Cantonese.


Connie de Vos: Iconicity and Variation: Conventionalisation of Color Terms in Small versus Large Signing Communities

Studies on color terms in signed languages have suggested that color term systems are not only affected by language mode, but also by characteristics of the language community (Washabaugh, Woodward, & DeSatis, 1978; Woodward, 1989; Nonaka, 2004). In this talk I present data from Kata Kolok, a signed language used in a small community of North Bali. In Kata Kolok, all indications of color are based on visual iconicity, which allows for contextual flexibility and high variability among signers. First of all, pointing to indicate color is conventionalized for white, red, and black which are referred to by touching teeth, lips, and hair respectively. Second, in spontaneous conversations signers often point towards objects in the vicinity which have the color which they would like to express. For example, one might point to a color on one’s sarong. A third strategy is to produce signs for objects which prototypically have that color. There is a high degree of variation between signers in the choice of objects. For example, one might choose either banana or turmeric to indicate the color yellow. One possibility is that this variation is due to the limited time depth of the language and the relatively small size of the signing community. A comparison between young and small sign languages like Kata Kolok to larger and more established signed languages, such as American Sign Language, suggests that conventionalization of color is a function of expressive mode, cognition, context, critical mass, and time.


Shakila Shayan & Ozge Ozturk & Mark Sicoli: The thickness of pitch: Crossmodal iconicity in three unrelated languages; Farsi, Turkish and Zapotec

This paper considers parallels in the poetics of everyday life in both the Middle East and Meso-America. Sound is difficult to describe. While certain professionals (like linguists) may have expert vocabularies dedicated to sound description, speakers of many languages around the world rely on the vocabulary of more tangible domains, like space and size, extending them to talk about the intangible domain of sound. English is an example of a split system where one dimension has a dedicated vocabulary, like “quiet” vs “loud”, but the dimension of pitch uses spatial metaphors “high” and “low”. We present the language of sound in three unrelated languages—Farsi, Turkish, and Zapotec—whose speakers use metaphors of spatial dimension to talk about sound. All three refer to high frequency sounds as “thin” and low frequency sounds as “thick”. While it may be possible to explain similar patterns of Farsi and Turkish due to the extensive history of language contact in central Asia, our inclusion of the out-of-contact Meso-American language Zapotec suggests more is going on regarding the natural iconicity between dimensions of size and the perception of sounds. We discuss how vocabulary that discretely break up continua of size dimensions lend themselves to less-tangible sound continua like pitch, loudness, and tempo. “Thin” always entails a comparison with “thick” like “high” entails a comparison with “low”. An iconic relationship is set up between dimension and sound, which are domains that are both ontologically continuous but made phenomenologically discontinuous through their categorical representation in language


Sylvia Tufvesson: Analogy making in the Semai sensory world

How are related sensory perceptions expressed linguistically? What drives similarity judgments between sensory experiences in, and across, sensory modalities? This paper examines analogy making in sensory perception in an Aslian speaking community on the Malay Peninsula. The language of focus is Semai (Austroasiatic, Mon-Khmer), in which the main class of words for sensory encoding, is that of ideophones. Semai ideophones convey speakers’ perceptual experiences in semantically detailed ways, with multiple perceptions encoded in one word. This ideophonic vocabulary displays a rich inventory of linguistic iconicity, where related meanings map on to related forms by means of sound symbolic templates. Through motivated form-meaning mappings, speakers make use of analogy to capture parallels across perceptual experiences. Such structural mapping is done both within and across sensory modalities. Focus is given to the sensory domains of color and smell, domains particularly rich in lexical distinctions and in sound symbolic templates to express fine-grained sensory differences. This high level of elaboration within color and smell lexical domains, correlates with speakers salient reference to colour and smell when characterizing and interacting with the environmental world. The last part of this talk will focus on the cross-modal usage of sensory terms. A large portion of the Semai sensory vocabulary can be used to refer to sensory perceptions in multiple modalities, capturing complex sensory events. An overview of the more common modality overlaps and speakers’ similarity judgments of cross-modal perceptions is discussed.


Mark Dingemanse: Ideophones and the senses: The interplay of language, culture, and the perceptual world in a West-African society

In this talk I look at the language of perception through the prism of ideophones in Siwu, an underdescribed Kwa language spoken in Ghana’s mountainous Volta Region. Data from standardized elicitation tasks will be coupled with an analysis of speech during joint activities (e.g. making gunpowder, producing palm oil) to show that ideophones are a key expressive resource in talking about perception and sensation in Siwu.

In the first part of the talk I will discuss data elicited with the help of perceptual stimuli designed to study the comparative codability of different sensory experiences. Some domains (e.g. touch, taste) are almost exclusively covered by ideophonic vocabulary, while in others (e.g. colour, shape) ideophones are supplemented by other linguistic constructions.

The second part focuses on the ubiquity of ideophones across a wide variety of speech genres, which reflects a concern of Siwu speakers with their perceptions. A video recording of conversations during the making of gunpowder shows that the collaborators calibrate their understanding of processes and technologies not with cold technical terms, but with vivid sensory language. Ideophones evoking visual and tactile perceptions abound in this environment. A contrastive analysis of the use of ideophones in both natural discourse and elicitation tasks throws light on the interplay of language, culture and the perceptual world in Mawu society.


Olivier le Guen: The Hidden Grammar of Yucatec Maya: Senses, Language and Perception

Despite that fact that all humans potentially have perceptual access to the world and have ways of linguistically expressing these perceptions, the question remains how sensory domains are carved in each language. What are the specific linguistic resources available such that some percepts are ineffable? This paper argues that the productive morphology of Yucatec Maya, a language spoken in Southern Mexico, provides speakers with linguistic resources to talk about specific sensory perceptions. In Yucatec Maya, the lexicon is divided into two classes: a noun class and a verbo-nominal root class. A large portion of verbo-nominal roots can be derived (using reduplication and special suffixes) according to a common template that encodes particular perceptual features of the world (e.g. tak’, ‘adhere(nce)’ becomes tak’-lemak ‘sticky’, chak-tak’-e’en, ‘dirty red’, etc.). Some derivations fit some roots more readily than others according to their semantics, nonetheless these derivations provide a default pattern for speakers to express particular perceptual modalities (namely sight and touch) and specific properties of percepts (mainly agency, completeness, texture, color and spatial distribution). These derivational processes raise questions about the core meaning of the verbo-nominal roots that seem to encode a skeletal concept (e.g. roundedness, piled-upedness), rather than concrete properties (a ball or bulge, a stack or to pile up). This linguistic system has consequences for language-culture interface. Contrary to previous claims, Yucatec Maya suggests that there is no causal relationship between the size of the color or texture lexicon and the specifics of the environment or the material culture.


Penelope Brown: ‘It tastes cold-soft-soft’: Cross-modal compounding in Tzeltal perception terms

Although the human perceptual apparatus is biologically given and hence universal, languages differ in how they lexicalize aspects of sensory experience. Within a given language and culture, the distinct sensory modalities are often given differential treatment in ways reflecting culturally-specific ideas about, and uses for, the different senses. This paper reports on the Mayan language Tzeltal, as spoken in Tenejapa in southern Mexico. Drawing on data derived from the responses of 13 Tzeltal consultants to a standardized set of elicitation stimuli for different sensory modalities, and from talk about perceptions in naturally-occurring Tzeltal conversations, I provide an overview of the words and constructions used for describing perceptual qualities in six domains: color, shape, sound, touch, smell, and taste. I then focus on color and taste, two domains where, despite limited sets of basic terms, productive reduplication and compounding processes are used in analogous ways to more finely discriminate sensations. For example, although Tzeltal has only five basic color terms, a number of derived forms specific to color modulate the meanings of the basic terms (e.g., ‘grue’-el-el-tik, ‘white’-lik-an-tik, ‘black’-som-som). Similarly, in the domain of taste there are six basic terms and a more limited set of compounded forms for tastes (e.g., ‘sweet’-pik-pik-tik , ‘cold’-lo’-lo’-tik). In the domains of color and taste, these reduplicated endings are formed from roots with meanings based in other sensory domains; these are cross-modal modifiers. I suggest some ways in which these properties of the Tzeltal language of perception provide insights into Tenejapans’ construction of sensory experience.

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