Asifa Majid

About how culture determines the way we put sensory perceptions into words

Asifa Majid

Asifa Majid is professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Oxford and laureate of the Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research. In her large scaled cross-cultural research she bridges the gap between language, culture, and cognition. “Each language contains a unique worldview that can help us to understand humanity better.”

What fascinates you about the relationship between language, culture, and cognition?

As a scientist I am interested in how language affects the way we think and how we perceive the world. My research examines how the human mind works, in relation to cultural patterns and the use of language. At this intersection there are fascinating questions to be answered, such as: do people who speak different languages think differently? Are some thoughts unthinkable without language? And are some experiences impossible to put into words? To investigate these fundamental questions, I use a multidisciplinary approach that brings together insights from various disciplines such as linguistics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy and neuroscience.

Why does human perception have your special interest?

There are few more compelling questions than whether other people perceive the world the same way we do. My cross-cultural research mainly focuses on the language of perception: how do languages differ in the words they use to describe sensory experiences like touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste? For example, English speakers describe variation in auditory pitch as ‘high’ or ‘low’, whereas speakers of Farsi refer to ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ tones. The use of such spatial metaphors appear to affect the ways people think about sounds outside of language too. This raises deeper questions about perception and its relation to language: are sensory experiences different across cultures because we think in particular languages or are our perceptions universally shared at some fundamental level? Ultimately, the aim is to discover what makes up our shared humanity despite all the ways in which we differ from each other.

You recently published an influential paper on whether there is a universal hierarchy of the senses. What brought you to this question?

Since Aristotle, it has been supposed there is a hierarchy of the senses, with sight as the dominant sense. The long-standing presumption in Western thought has been that vision and audition are more objective than the other senses, serving as the basis for knowledge and understanding, whereas touch, taste, and smell are considered crude and of little value. Remarkably, in English visual and auditory metaphors are often used to refer to understanding. For example, “I see your point” means “I understand what you’re saying” and “I hear you” means “I agree with you” or “I get your point”. Because I am interested in the principal question of whether other people perceive the world the way we do, it’s important to test how well these notions reflect the diversity of languages and communities worldwide by examining not just metaphor but literal perception too. Therefore in support with the Ammodo Science Award I conducted a large scaled cross-cultural study with my colleagues to investigate whether there is a universal hierarchy of the senses, such that some senses are more accessible to consciousness and linguistic description than others.

How did you collect the empirical data?

To determine how well a language can express touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste, we used a standardised set of stimuli probing the five basic senses. The aim was to elicit descriptions in twenty languages around the world, including three sign languages. All data were collected by researchers who were expert in the languages. Visual stimuli consisted of colour chips and basic geometric figures that participants were asked to name; auditory stimuli involved sound fragments that varied in pitch, loudness, and tempo; tactile stimuli focused on different textures of materials, such as sandpaper, rubber, and plastic; the stimuli for taste tasted sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami; and smell was tested using a scratch-and-sniff booklet containing common scents like onion and smoke. Subsequently we measured the degree to which speakers agreed on the name of a stimulus. If the Aristotelian hierarchy of the senses indeed holds universally true, all participants, irrespective of language, would have to communicate better about sight and hearing than the other senses.

What were your most important findings?

We found the mapping of language onto perception is culturally relative. For each of the five senses, there are languages that excel at linguistic expression and those that seem to struggle to put perceptions into words. For example, American Sign Language and English speakers used basic colour words to describe colours (e.g., red, green, blue), while Kata Kolok (a sign language from Bali) and Yélî Dnye (Papua New Guinea) speakers used very different ad-hoc descriptions instead. In British Sign Language and Umpila (a hunter-gatherer language spoken in Australia), participants found it hard to name flavours, but in Farsi (from Iran) and Lao (from Laos) we saw the exact opposite – participants of these languages showed high agreement for how to name tastes.

Did your study find support for a universal hierarchy of the senses?

There is no single hierarchy of the senses, contrary to what Aristotle had presumed. Although vision and sound were privileged in English, no other language across our diverse sample had a ranking compatible with the Aristotelian order. Instead, we found languages differed fundamentally in which sensory domains they expressed best, and how they did so. Although different languages focus on specific sensory domains, we also found some general tendencies: for example, people across the globe struggled to name smells.

How do cultures differ in their ability to talk about smell?

For decades there’s been the general notion in the West that there’s a “weak link” between smell and language, which has led scholars to call olfaction the “mute sense”. More recently however, my colleagues and I have shown that certain communities tend to have a broader repertoire of words to talk about smells than most English speakers. For example, my previous research with the Jahai, a hunter-gatherer community living in the rainforests of the Malay Peninsula, documented around a dozen specific words that are used for smells. The word ‘pɁus’ for instance, describes the specific scent of mushroom, cabbage, some species of hornbill, and the fur of the pig-tailed macaque. It was striking to see that the hunter-gatherer Umpila from Australia also find the sense of smell the easiest to name, confirming that languages across the world differ widely in which senses are more or less expressible in language.

To what extent can differences in olfactory language be explained by natural habitat?  

It has been speculated that some places are more odorous than others and this may lead to speakers in some communities developing language to express certain smell distinctions in their environments. In a tropical rain forest, for example, you cannot see very far into the distance because of vegetation, but odours can be perceived at a distance: before you can see something, you can smell it. People who live in temperate urban surroundings in northern Europe, in contrast, perhaps don’t need to rely on their sense of smell as much and therefore have fewer words for smell distinctions. This might predict that people who live in arctic climates never develop smell vocabulary, but there are communities that have an interest in smell in Siberia, so this cannot be the whole story.

And to what extent can differences be explained by culture?  

Another option is that olfactory languages vary because they are shaped by cultural practices and beliefs. For example, within some hunter-gatherer communities a taboo exists on the odour-mixing of close relatives: sitting too close to somebody with a similar personal scent is considered dangerous. Moreover, when smell is of high cultural significance, in some cases olfactory metaphors are used to talk about emotions. The Seri in Mexico for example, say that “anger stinks”. It is likely that a complex scenario of co-evolution between genetics and culture could form the ultimate explanation. My research hopes to shed light on how these ecological, cultural, and genetic factors together shape the differences in language of perception around the world.

Are the smell vocabularies of experts like perfumers or wine critics similar to that of hunter-gatherers?   

Although professionals like chefs, sommeliers and perfumers, have cultivated their noses, there are important differences between such expertise and the everyday cultural knowledge of hunter-gatherer people. First of all, their vocabularies are learned differently: hunter-gatherers learn smell words throughout childhood with little explicit instruction, whereas professional experts acquire olfactory lexicons through explicit training often later in life. Secondly, hunter-gatherers use general smell terms in order to capture broad similarities between odours. Jahai, for example, distinguishes plʔeŋ smells (characteristic of blood, raw meat and fish) from cŋɛs smells (typical for bat dropping, smoke and petrol), both of which are simply ‘stinky’ in English. By contrast, specialists often use olfactory language to identify exact scents and to distinguish between very closely related aromas, for example, telling fake vanilla apart from the real thing. Lastly, although connoisseurs may show high consensus when describing the bouquet of a wine or perfume, this ability usually does not extend beyond their specific domain of expertise. In fact, previous research conducted with my students and colleagues shows that experts are no better than laypeople at describing everyday scents, like the smell of soap or grass. Although there are these differences, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that scent professionals demonstrate that olfactory skills can in fact be trained.

Why is it important to preserve language diversity worldwide?

Of the approximately 7000 languages spoken in the world, it is estimated that a third are at risk today. The majority that are under threat are indigenous languages spoken by communities whose environment is under threat because of encroachment on their land by loggers and developers or otherwise by climate change. Language not only allow us to communicate, but conveys the inherited knowledge and oral teachings of a culture honed by generations over millennia. That’s why it is important to protect them. To draw attention to this issue the United Nations have declared 2022-2032 to be the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

What can we learn from indigenous languages?

Each indigenous culture has its own unique way of relating to the natural environment, and knowledge about local ecosystems that has been passed down from generation to generation. For example, a recent study showed that each endangered language has unique insight into different medicinal cures that aren’t known to Western medicine yet. Indigenous languages may contain valuable information unknown to Western societies, but that’s not the most important reason for conserving them. Each language lost means the loss of a unique worldview that is a valuable good in its own right and that can help us to understand humanity better.

How does this affect you as a researcher?

At times I find it unbearably sad that people feel more emotion when an animal goes extinct than when a community loses its language and culture. We need a David Attenborough of language and culture, to show just how amazing it is that all these languages represent unique ways of understanding the world. I wish we could celebrate that more and perhaps there are solutions for the loss of languages worldwide. Multilingual schooling, for example, could be an antidote to the globalisation of education, if communities want that. As researchers we hope to work with local communities in ways that promote their priorities, for example by providing literacy materials in their native language, if that’s what they wish. And on a positive note, language is ever-changing and new varieties appear all the time. So while diversity is under threat, the human drive for differentiating ourselves from others means that there is an antidote to universalising forces too. As long as there are humans, there will be languages for us scientists to study.

Next year you will be a fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. What are you planning to do there?

The plan is to write a book that synthesises my work so far. In the last years I have been working on a range of different research projects and it’s time to integrate them within an overarching framework. Some of the large scaled cross-cultural studies I lead take many years to complete, so if I am ever to do another big one, then it needs to be a really exciting question that I can answer in a meaningful way. My year at Harvard is an exciting opportunity to see what that next big challenge is going to be.


Photos: David Fisher