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Regular version of the site

Are All Things Equally Expressible in Language?

On 31st March - 1st April 2015, HSE School of Linguistics is holding a series of lectures in English on research into the role of language as the interface between the mind and society. In 'New Perspectives in Semantic Typology' Asifa Majid, Professor at the Radboud University Nijmegen will give four lectures - a general introduction to semantic typology, the language of perception, the body, and event semantics.

Professor Majid will present the results of several empirical studies, across a range of semantic domains, investigating semantic systems across languages. She will explain how this new perspective in semantic typology attempts to bridge across disciplines by combining the methodological rigor of linguistic typology and experimental psycholinguistics, while remaining sensitive to local ethnographic contexts. Professor Majid spoke to the HSE English News service  about her work and colleagues in semiotics, about body language and about why some languages are better at describing smells than others.   

— You've been working with cross-cultural issues for many years. Your research in linguistic anthropology bridges across different disciplines, such as ethnography, psychology, cognitive science. Could you please tell us about how you started your research on the vocabulary of aromas in indigenous languages?

— The work on smells came out a broader question, namely, are all things equally expressible in language? Or to put in other words, are there some things that are difficult or impossible to put into words. Smell seemed like a candidate for ineffability (i.e., impossible to put into language). Centuries of speculation and dozens of studies show again and again smell is hard to describe - at least for English and other Standard Average European languages.

— I can imagine it was quite hard to do fieldwork for this research on the Aslian languages of the indigenous people in the Malay Peninsula?

— Fieldwork is challenging but I relied on Niclas Burenhult, the real expert on Jahai. He has been describing the language for years, and has written a grammar of this previously little-known language. It is with Niclas Burenhult's expertise that we were able to find out what we have so far. I could not have done my field research without him.

Smells are obviously important in many spheres of life, even for English speakers, but we suppress the explicit awareness of them. We sanitise our environments - our homes, our streets, ourselves. We don't have such taboos around colours.

— What would be the most rich language in terms of describing scent in the world, in your opinion?

— I think a good argument could be made that Jahai is the most scent-rich language because the smell terms in this language seem to apply to all smells, even novel ones. Maniq, a sister Aslian language, comes a close second. But I think a good case could be made for Totonac, instead, as described by Herman Aschmann, or perhaps even the Nilotic languages as described by Anne Storch.

— Why do we have abstract terms for colours but hardly for smells?

— I think it lies in our culture. Smells are obviously important in many spheres of life, even for English speakers, but we suppress the explicit awareness of them. We sanitise our environments - our homes, our streets, ourselves. We don't have such taboos around colours.

— You are planning to talk about body language as well at your lectures. How does the understanding and knowledge of body language help you as a researcher and a lecturer?

— The body is another domain where cross-cultural investigation brings to the open the hidden assumptions we have about how the world is. The fact there is variation in even "basic" vocabulary for hands, arms, feet and legs poses interesting and challenging questions for scholars and lay-people alike. If terminology differs, does that mean people think differently too? What consequences might this have for how dancers or footballers conceptualise their bodily movements, for example? And why is there this variation? Can it be explained by some cultural practice? In-depth examination of body language can be fruitful for thinking about the relationship between language, mind, and culture; and for exposing some of our own hidden assumptions about how these things relate.

In-depth examination of body language can be fruitful for thinking about the relationship between language, mind, and culture.

— Have you been interested in any of the Russian provincial dialects and indigenous languages of Sakhalin, Yakutia and Siberia?

— I have indeed been wondering about these languages! It has been suggested, for example, that languages with smell terminology would occur in hot, humid climates where smells are more redolent. But I suspect that odours could play an important role even in cold climates: the smell of fresh snow, the smells accompanying seasonal change, the smell of pickled or fermented foods. I hope to find out more about the smells and sights, and the languages for them, during my visit.

— How did your cooperation with the HSE start?

— In collaboration with Michael Dunn and Fiona Jordan we have been collecting data about semantic categories across the Indo-European language family. We were lucky enough to collaborate with Nina Dobrushina and Mikhail Daniel on this project.

— What's next on your research plate?

— I'm most excited about our project on the language of perception across cultures. We're currently writing up the results of our major cross-cultural project for The Oxford Handbook of The Language of Perception. I hope we will be able to share it with everyone soon!

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service


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