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The senses in language and culture

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 colour 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 relation 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 other cultures, 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, 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.

Where and when:
08:00-11:45 Dec 4, 2009
AAA Annual Meeting (Philadelphia, USA)
Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson


Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

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Wundtlaan 1
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The Netherlands

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