The senses in language and culture

The senses in language and culture: Special issue. Ed. by Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson. (The senses and society 6.1.) London: Berg Publishers, 2011. Pp. 125. ISBN 17458927. $58.50.

Reviewed by Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini, Centre for Applied Linguistics

This is the fourth special issue in the short life of a fascinating journal first published in 2006. As stated in the journal’s aims on its web site, ‘[e]very volume contains something for and about each of the senses, both singly and in all sorts of novel configurations’ (http://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=523). The 2011 special issue concentrates on the connections between language and the senses in a number of original short studies. The introduction by the editors  sets the scene for the following eleven articles, each reporting on the findings of a large crosscultural, crosslinguistic study of the Language of Perception (LoP) hosted at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, The Netherlands).

The editors remark how the focus on language as text, further exacerbated by a certain postmodernist desensualization of ethnography, had led to a ‘disembodiment’ of the social science inquiry. Through the ‘social sciences of the senses’ movement of the last two decades, the senses have become a popular topic in anthropology, but the study of the connection between language and the senses has lagged behind. While the editors remind us that language as a specifically human capacity expressed in acoustic or visual form appears limited in its capacity to connect us with the remaining senses, language as individual tongues affords new essential insights into the conceptualization of the senses. The restricted or amplified sensoria emerging from ethnographic work on individual languages point to the cultural construction of the senses. Moreover, experimental research has shown that language affects primary perception in its ‘fundamental intermediary role between the subjective, individual nature of sensation and the cultural world that constructs the perceptual field’ (9).

Most of the eleven articles report findings from field experiments and naturalistic observation of small-scale speech communities inhabiting pre-industrialization environments minimally affected by labor division and without literary traditions. Unsurprisingly, a whole gamut of previously unknown sensual categories have rewarded the search of the LoP researchers, and are discussed in fascinating ethnographic detail for the intellectual and sensual delectation of the reader. In fact, each article is a window into an unknown sensual world that re-awakens our Western perception dulled by over-exposure to the social media and to specialist taste and olfactory registers. If a book-sized introduction to the language of the senses is a restrictive task for the time-conscious reader, this slim special issue provides an enticing taster that will no doubt result in a return for a second helping.