Seminar Series

Are some experiences impossible to put into words?

Language seems to be better at expressing some notions (e.g., geometric shapes), but poor at others (e.g., describing an individuals’ face). But are there ineffable concepts, i.e., things that are difficult or impossible to put into words? And what might this tell us about the communicative pressures on language evolution? In this talk, I present data examining the comparative “ineffability” of the senses. Eminent scholars—from Plato to Pinker—have lauded vision while simultaneously underestimating the sense of smell. In particular, it is claimed olfactory abstraction is impossible: We cannot speak about what we smell. Experimental data seems to support this assertion, with the ordinary person only able to correctly name a smell around half the time at best. Neuroscientists have interpreted this fact to indicate a biological limit to our communicative capacity. But cross-cultural investigation shows this ineffability is, in fact, culture-specific. In contrast to English people, speakers of the Jahai language (a nomadic hunter-gatherer community in the Malay Peninsula) talk about odours as easily as colours. This raises the question of what underlies this variation: individual differences in biology, experience, or environment? Using studies from odor-color synaesthetes, wine and coffee experts, and diverse cultures worldwide, I explore each of these factors. Taken together, the evidence suggests that although some experiences may be difficult to put into words, this can be overcome if you speak the right language.