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RAI Anthropology and Language Seminars


Are some experiences impossible to put into words?

Professor Asifa Majid, Radboud Universiteit

Thursday 26 November at 5.00 pm

Language seems to be better at expressing some notions (e.g., geometric shapes), but poor at others (e.g., describing an individuals’ face). But are there ineffable concepts, i.e., things that are difficult or impossible to put into words? One proposal for ineffability is odor. Smell is said to be “the lowest, the most animal of the senses” (McKenzie 1923), and is claimed by many to have little value across cultures (e.g., Buchan 1812; Gardner 1993; Stoddart 1990). The language for smell is claimed to be similarly impoverished. McKenzie (1923) declared: “smell is speechless”, and Henning (1916) claimed “olfactory abstraction is impossible”. So, are smells truly ineffable? How difficult is it to describe an odour in comparison to a colour, shape, or sound? In this talk, I present results of a large-scale collaborative project on the expressibility of perceptual experiences in more than 20 diverse languages worldwide. Speakers of these languages were presented with standarised perceptual stimuli of colours, shapes, sounds, tactile objects, tastes, and smells, and asked to describe them. We then examined how expressible these experiences were by measuring within-community agreement. The results suggest differential expressibility across the senses. For example, English speakers show high agreement when talking about colours, but low agreement for tastes; but Lao speakers show the opposite pattern with low agreement for colours, and high agreement for tastes. More importantly, we see there are, in fact, communities where odours are expressible. The Jahai of the Malay Peninsula, for example, are able to talk about odours as easily as they talk about colours. This show us that olfactory abstraction is possible, and humans can be adept at talking about smells. So, some experiences may be difficult, to put into words; but this can be overcome if you speak the right language.

This event is free, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please go to http://asifamajid.eventbrite.co.uk