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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Nov 6;115(45):11369-11376. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1720419115.

Differential coding of perception in the world's languages.

Author information

1
Language & Cognition Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, 6525 XD Nijmegen, The Netherlands; asifa.majid@york.ac.uk stephen.levinson@mpi.nl.
2
Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University, 6525 HP Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
3
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TH, United Kingdom.
4
Language & Cognition Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, 6525 XD Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
5
School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182.
6
Department of Interpretation & Translation, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC 20002.
7
Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom.
8
English Studies, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne, 75005 Paris, France.
9
Department of Linguistics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
10
Education & Pedagogy, Utrecht University, 3512 JE Utrecht, The Netherlands.
11
Department of Linguistics, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.
12
Centre for Rehabilitation and Specials Needs, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 43600 Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia.
13
Institute of General and Applied Linguistics and Phonetics, Université Paris 3 (Sorbonne-Nouvelle), 75005 Paris, France.
14
Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1TN, United Kingdom.
15
Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden.
16
Linguistics Department, Centro de Investigación y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 14000 Mexico City, Mexico.
17
Laboratory of Ethnology and Comparative Sociology, CNRS/Paris Nanterre University, 92000 Nanterre, France.
18
Center for Linguistics, University of Zurich, 8006 Zurich, Switzerland.
19
Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904.

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.

KEYWORDS:

cross-cultural; cross-linguistic; ineffability; language; perception

PMID:
30397135
PMCID:
PMC6233065
DOI:
10.1073/pnas.1720419115
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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