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ven. 20/04/2018 Séminaire DTT - Atelier Typologie sémantique
Sylvia Tufvesson (MPI-Nijmegen)
ISH - Salle André Frossard

Language of perception in Semai

This talk will discuss linguistic resources used to encode sensory perception in Semai (Aslian, Malaysia). The semantic structure of our five sensory domains will be presented: covering different types of colour terms, strategies for capturing sound and acoustic contrast (including the use of metaphors), as well as the internal semantic structure of touch, taste and smell. We will see how speakers refer to sensory qualities in all modalities with the use of dedicated abstract vocabulary (cf. Levinson et al. 2007), i.e. descriptive terms that capture a specific domain quality, equivalent to English words such as ‘blue’, ‘rough’ or ‘musty’. With mainly abstract-based vocabularies, Semai contradicts earlier proposals that languages, generally, do not have developed abstract vocabularies for all sensory domains (cf. Stevenson and Wilson 2007).

A subset of Semai sensory terms displays a multimodal quality, an ability of a single term to denote a quality in more than one sensory domain, as e.g. slqĩːk ‘pale coloured’ and ‘taste bland’ or plẽːt for an irritable physical sensation, a sharp smell or a quick burst of light. Examples of such terms will also be presented. In addition to terms associated with sensory modalities, Semai offers the lexical resource of ‘expressives’, a common part of speech throughout Southeast Asia, see Diffloth (1976) and Williams (2013), and closely related to words known as ‘ideophones’ in other linguistic areas of the world (see e.g. Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz (2001). Semai expressives are specialised in detailed and vivid descriptions of events and (sensory) experiences. Special attention will be given to expressives encoding (visual) movement, and the way in which such expressives combine the three semantic dimensions of motion; Path, Manner and Figure (cf. e.g. Talmy (1975)).

Semai sensory language, both expressives and general sensory vocabulary, show a distinct structural profile. This includes special derivational categories as well as separate syntactic behaviour – formal features that will be exemplified.

Attention will also be given to the senses in Semai cultural practices, including a look at food and taste taboos and the important role of odours in Semai ritual and spiritual life (cf. Dentan 1991). These practices will be linked to the high number of, in particular, odour categories in the language.


Dentan, Robert Knox. 1999. ‘Semai-Malay Ethnobotany: Hindu Influences on the Trade in Sacred Plants’. Akass Heritage Paper Series, no. 3: 1–33.

Diffloth, Gérard. 1976. ‘Expressives in Semai’. In Austroasiatic Studies, edited by P. N. Jenner, L. C. Thompson, and S. Starosta, 1:249–64. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.

Levinson, S. C., Majid, A., & Enfield, N. J. 2007. Language of perception: The view from language and culture. In A. Majid (Ed.), Field Manual Volume 10 (pp. 10-21). Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

Stevenson, Richard J, and Donald A Wilson. 2007. ‘Odour Perception: An Object-Recognition Approach’. Perception 36 (12): 1821 – 1833.

Talmy, Leonard. 1975. Semantics and syntax of motion. In John Kimball (Ed.), Syntax and Semantics, vol. IV (181–238). New York: Academic Press.

Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Vol. 44. Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Williams, Jeffrey P. 2013. The Aesthetics of Grammar: Sound and Meaning in the Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia. Cambridge University Press.



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