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An overview of the senses across languages and cultures

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Majid,  Asifa
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Radboud University Nijmegen;

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Levinson,  Stephen C.
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Radboud University Nijmegen;

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Citation

Majid, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). An overview of the senses across languages and cultures. Talk presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Philadelphia, PA. 2009-12-02 - 2009-12-05.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0012-C75B-5
Abstract
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.