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Differential coding of perception in the world’s languages

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Asifa Majid
  • Sean Robertshttp://orcid.org/0000-0001-5990-9161
  • Ludy Cilissen
  • Karen Emmorey
  • Brenda Nicodemus
  • Lucinda O'Grady
  • Bernice Woll
  • Barbara LeLan
  • Hilário de Sousa
  • Brian L. Cansler
  • Shakila Shayan
  • Connie de Vos
  • Gunter Senft
  • Nick J. Enfield
  • Rogayah Razak
  • Sebastian Fedden
  • Sylvia Tufvesson
  • Mark Dingemanse
  • Ozge Ozturk
  • Penelope Brown
  • Clair Hill
  • Olivier Le Guen
  • Vincent Hirtzel
  • Rik van Gijn
  • Mark Sicoli
  • Stephen C. Levinson
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Early online date5 Nov 2018
DOIs
DateAccepted/In press - 12 Apr 2018
DateE-pub ahead of print - 5 Nov 2018
DatePublished (current) - 6 Nov 2018

Abstract

Is there a universal hierarchy of the senses, such that some senses (e.g., vision) are more accessible to consciousness and linguistic description than others (e.g., smell)? The long-standing presumption in Western thought has been that vision and audition are more objective than the other senses, serving as the basis of knowledge and understanding, whereas touch, taste, and smell are crude and of little value. This predicts that humans ought to be better at communicating about sight and hearing than the other senses, and decades of work based on English and related languages certainly suggests this is true. However, how well does this reflect the diversity of languages and communities worldwide? To test whether there is a universal hierarchy of the senses, stimuli from the five basic senses were used to elicit descriptions in 20 diverse languages, including 3 unrelated sign languages. We found that languages differ fundamentally in which sensory domains they linguistically code systematically, and how they do so. The tendency for better coding in some domains can be explained in part by cultural preoccupations. Although languages seem free to elaborate specific sensory domains, some general tendencies emerge: for example, with some exceptions, smell is poorly coded. The surprise is that, despite the gradual phylogenetic accumulation of the senses, and the imbalances in the neural tissue dedicated to them, no single hierarchy of the senses imposes itself upon language.

    Research areas

  • perception, cross-linguistic, cross-cultural, language, ineffability

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  • Full-text PDF (accepted author manuscript)

    Rights statement: This is the author accepted manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) is available online via NAS at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/10/30/1720419115 . Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Accepted author manuscript, 756 KB, PDF document

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