The sense you consider most important somehow depends on the language you speak.

What sense can you describe with precision? We’re guessing you’d answer “sight,” followed by “hearing,” “taste” or “touch,” and finally “smell” as the least. How did we predict all that with so much confidence? That’s not because of how the human mind works; its because you’re reading this article in English — if you’re reading in another language, maybe we got it right as well. However, you might disagree with us. But according to research, the sense you consider most important depends on the language you speak.

Related media: Language: Crash Course Psychology #16


The Sensory Hierarchy

The hierarchy of senses dates way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Metaphysics; his suggestions were based on the false assumption that humans had only five senses — sight is at the top, he said, followed by hearing, smell, touch, and taste. If you disagree with him about his ordering, you’re not alone — especially smell, which is notoriously hard to describe by English-speakers. But you’re pretty comfortable with the fact that ‘sight’ and ‘hearing’ are the two most frequently understood senses in the world to navigate with.

Unfortunately, you could be utterly wrong. Why? Because its really hard to easily predict the true hierarchy of the senses — almost every study on this topic has exclusively focused on Western cultures. The Bias of the West.


The Study Of Sense

In a 2018 study on the topic, researcher set to map out what they termed the “codability” of various senses in different languages and cultures. Let’s step back an define a few terms: Codability refers to how accurately a language reflects the world. In other words, it is how a particular language or culture empirically perceives the practical world. You can guess where this is going.

Hypothetically, if every participant in the study used the same vocabulary to describe a certain sensory experience — like color, shape, smell, or sound — the codability score of the vocabulary would be one (1). And, if every participant used a different vocabulary to describe that experience, the codability score would be zero (0). The higher the score, the more accurately that vocabulary conveys sensory information.

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus | man and woman with speech bubbles on chalk board

The sensory study was conducted by an international team led by Asifa Majid from the Max Plank Institute of Psycholinguistics. The new project mainly targeted 20 unrelated (predominantly-spoken) languages around the world — including a few nonverbal sign languages such as the American and  British Sign languages. The researchers tested the codability of these languages’ in terms of smell, taste, touch, hearing, and two different facets of sight — shape and color.

For the English language, as you might have guessed, color had the highest codability score, followed by shape. Five other languages place either those visual senses (color and shape) at the top. As a matter of fact, taste emerged as the overall winner, earning the a highest score in 11 of the 20 languages. Four languages also featured a sense perception with a score above 0.75 — with all four being taste. For the Lao language of Thailand, taste had a score of 1, the highest possible score.

(Every single Lao-speaking participant used the exact same vocabulary to describe each and every taste perception).


Does All This Make Sense?

Of course, it does. This all has to do with the fact that our senses really does has the power to reflect our thoughts rather than just our biological responses with our environment. Another study led by Asifa Majid found that this isn’t even necessarily a matter of language, which had a much narrower focus on two distinct ethnics: the Semaq Beri and the Semelai on the Malay Peninsula. The former are mainly a hunter-gatherer society, with the latter being a horticultural society who share a common dialect.

This study only focused on smell and color, but had some quite remarkable differences despite being among neighbors. The hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri scored 0.26 for smells and a slightly-worse of 0.3 on color recognition; whereas the horticultural Semelai scored a codability of 0.03 for smells and 0.46 on color recognition. That’s pretty comparable to the English scores for those same senses. What this means is that, the codability of your language isn’t just about how you speak, it’s also about culture.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, May 04, 2019.

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