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The universality of word meanings across cultures

Prof. Asifa Majid, Professor in Communication and Information Studies

Are word meanings universal, or do they differ across cultures? A group of CLS researchers studies this question from both a cross-cultural and a developmental perspective. Professor Asifa Majid, “According to some scholars, word meanings are largely the same across people, and are shaped in only a limited way by physical experience with the concepts and objects denoted by the words. Others suggest that word meanings vary substantially from culture to culture, and that every infant must learn a different system. Our goal is to clarify the nature of word meaning and its relation to other systems, such as our senses, by combining psychological methods, in-depth linguistic studies, and ethnographically-informed description.”

Cultural experience
A number of the group’s investigators have explored the language of ‘smell’ across cultures. For example, the researchers asked the Jahai, a group of nomAsifa Majidadic hunter-gatherers in the Malay Peninsula, and a group of English speakers from the USA, to name odours and colours. The results showed that English speakers found naming colours easier than naming odours, reflecting our notorious difficulties with odour language. In comparison, the Jahai were just as good at naming odours as colours. “Moreover, the way in which smells were described also differed between the two cultures,” says Majid. English speakers tended to use words for the source of the odour (e.g., smells like banana, smells like coffee) whereas Jahai speakers used abstract terms that specifically describe smell qualities. For example, the word ltpɨt roughly means “to be fragrant” and can be applied to a variety of odours such as flowers, perfumes and bearcat. Majid, “This study provides important evidence that odour naming is not universally difficult, but that it can differ according to cultural experience.”

Odour-colour synaesthesia
In another line of research, the research group found a way of improving odour language. A specific study involved a group of individuals with odour-colour synaesthesia: a rare neurological phenomenon where people automatically see vivid colours when they smell odours. The synaesthetes (people with synaesthesia) and a group of non-synaesthetes were asked to name a wide array of odours such as coffee, mint, garlic, and perfumes. Results showed that synaesthetes were more accurate at naming odours (i.e., naming the odour source correctly) and more consistent (i.e., more likely to name the odour in the same way on separate occasions). Furthermore, synaesthetes were found to be better at discriminating between different smells than non-synaesthetes. “These findings suggest that linking odours to the other senses, for example by means of colour associations, can help strengthen the way we think and talk about odours,” says Majid.

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Semantic systems
In addition to pursuing their work on language and the senses in both children and adults, the group continues its documentation of semantic systems in lesser-described languages in the world, including the Ryūkyūan languages of Japan, Avatime as spoken in Ghana, as well as the languages of Europe. Moreover, the group is extending their research on the senses by systematically studying domains such as space and event representation.