Words for perceptions

Posted by Jim on April 24, 2002

In Reply to: Words for perceptions posted by R. Berg on April 24, 2002

: : : Are words for smell and taste scarce in english compared to words for other senses? If so, why? Any possibility that in the past "awful" or "rotten" were adequate descriptors of how things tasted and smelled, so these two senses were short-changed in the evolution of the language?

: : : Do other languages command a broader pallette of words for taste and smell? Are wine reviewers forever restricted to simile or metaphor?

: : I suspect it has something to do with the area(s) of the brain used for processing the information. The olfactory processing takes place in a primitive region, while sight and hearing have evolved further, and dance around the cerebrum. We've evolved toward greater and more sensitive use of visual discrimination, and we rely less and less on smell and taste to communicate information. (Our noses aren't brown from flattery: that's rust.) The sensitivity of our Vision, where we can see subtleties of shape and size and scale and sharpness of focus, even for distant objects just runs rings around poor old Smell, which seems to be a blunt instrument by comparison. Our use of language, also in evolutionary process, parallels it, and as a result, it's a miracle that wine reviewers can come up with any relevant, clear words at all.

: This topic would be good for years of discussion. Instead, here's a passage from Steven Pinker, "How the Mind Works" (W. W. Norton, 1997), p. 191. Pinker is speculating on why a primate, rather than "a groundhog, or a catfish, or a tapeworm," came to occupy the cognitive niche--that is, what it was about the ancestors of humans that enabled the evolution of a species that makes its way by thinking. He gives four reasons. The first has to do with vision.

: "Primates are visual animals. In monkeys such as the rhesus macaque, half the brain is dedicated to sight. Stereoscopic vision, the use of differences in the vantage points of the two eyes to give a sense of depth, developed early in the primate lineage, allowing early nocturnal primates to move among treacherous fine branches and to grab insects with their hands. Color vision accompanied the switch of the ancestors of monkeys and apes to the day shift and their new taste for fruits, which advertise their ripeness with gaudy hues.
: Why would the vision thing make such a difference? Depth perception defines a three-dimensional space filled with movable solid objects. Color makes objects pop out from their backgrounds, and gives us a sensation that corresponds to the stuff an object is made of, distinct from our perception of the shape of the stuff. Together they have pushed the primate brain into splitting the flow of visual information into two streams: a 'what' system, for objects and their shapes and compositions, and a 'where' system, for their locations and motions. It can't be a coincidence that the human mind grasps the world--even the most abstract, ethereal concepts--as a space filled with movable things and stuff. . . . We say that John WENT FROM being sick TO being well, even if he didn't move an inch; he could have been in bed the whole time. Mary can GIVE him MANY PIECES of advice, even if they merely talked on the phone and nothing changed hands. Even scientists, when they try to grasp abstract mathematical relationships, plot them in graphs that show them as two- and three-dimensional shapes. Our capacity for abstract thought has co-opted the coordinate system and inventory of objects made available by a well-developed visual system."

: When we're describing something visual, much of the time we're talking about size, shape, dimensions, location, movement--and these aspects can also be appreciated with the tactile sense, and they can also be measured. The more subjective or emotional aspects are harder to talk about. (You might tell a landscape architect, "I want the garden laid out so that walking along the winding path will gradually bring a sense of repose by the time one reaches the willow tree," but you're not likely to get exactly what you wanted, even though there are gardens like that.) A vocabulary can be more easily established for things that two persons can witness than for things that are internal. We're pretty limited when we have to describe the quality of a pain to a doctor.

: An impoverished vocabulary doesn't necessarily mean experience is lacking. I can discriminate many more smells than I have names for. Some languages have only a few words for colors, but their speakers can sort tiles of subtly differing colors as well as speakers of other languages.

Is language formation primarily driven by perceptive capacity? What role does the need to accurately communicate the preception play? Is the return gained through detailed communication of tastes and smells so small that there is no natural economy underwriting the invention of vocabulary?