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Journal Article

Taste in two tongues: A Southeast Asian study of semantic convergence


Enfield,  N. J.
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Categories across Language and Cognition, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language documentation and data mining;

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Enfield, N. J. (2011). Taste in two tongues: A Southeast Asian study of semantic convergence. The Senses & Society, 6(1), 30-37. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233632.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0012-BB1D-1
This article examines vocabulary for taste and flavor in two neighboring but unrelated languages (Lao and Kri) spoken in Laos, Southeast Asia. There are very close similarities in underlying semantic distinctions made in the taste/flavor domain in these two languages, not just in the set of basic tastes distinguished (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami or glutamate), but in a series of further basic terms for flavors, specifying texture and other sensations in the mouth apart from pure taste (e.g. starchy, dry in the mouth, minty, tingly, spicy). After presenting sets of taste/flavor vocabulary in the two languages and showing their high degree of convergence, the article discusses some methodological and theoretical issues that arise from the observation of close convergence in semantic structure across languages, in particular the issue of how much inter-speaker variation is possible not only across apparently highly convergent systems, but also within languages. The final section raises possible causes for the close convergence of semantic structure in the two languages. The conclusion is that the likely cause of this convergence is historical social contact between speech communities in the area, although the precise mode of influence (e.g. direction of transmission) is unknown.