Sense, sensibility, and vocabulary

How much of our language is dominated by what you see, touch, smell, taste, or hear? Is there a pecking order of the senses when it comes to how much they inhabit our consciousness? 

We humans have about 100 million photoreceptors in our retina. We can also hear any sound within 20 to 20,000 Hertz (this goes down as you age). Until more studies confirm that we can smell a trillion scents, we still go with the 10,000 that have been proven so far. We can sense 5 basic tastes, but flavors are a combination of tastes and scents, so imagine the dishes that give rise to that we can savor. Two hundred twenty-two touch receptors, most of them for pain, are embedded in every square centimeter of each of our bodies. With all of those buzzing in their assigned roles to give you information about the world, what will define your perception the most?

This is what a recent study set for itself to find out. They studied 20 languages belonging to different major landmasses (which served as a surrogate for differentiating cultures), and 3 unrelated sign languages. The participants were given stimuli for each of the senses, and they were asked to describe what they sensed, as expressed in their own language. 

There were so many fascinating findings. One of them was that languages differed in how easy or difficult it is to describe a color, shape, sound, smell, taste, touch. The English speakers had no trouble finding words to express color, shape, or sound, but had difficulty describing smell, taste, and touch. The Malay speakers were slightly better than the English speakers in describing color, shape, touch, and taste. The Farsi, Cantonese, and Lao speakers were the best-versed in expressing taste. 

Another finding is that we identify our sensory experiences in 3 ways: abstractions, source-based, and subjective. Abstractions are those known descriptions – like "red," "smooth," "fragrant" – understood by the concept. The study found that abstractions are used across languages for color, shape, sound, touch, and taste. But for smell, participants used mostly source-based descriptions. Source-based descriptions refer to specific objects or sources like "vanilla," "beads," or "ash." "Evaluative" strategies are tied to emotions – "subjective." The study found that sound, touch, and taste had some evaluative expressions, but smell had the most proportion of evaluative responses across languages. 

The most important finding was that there seems to be no universal hierarchy of the senses. But while there is none, the sense of smell seems to be the hardest to express across languages studied. This means that there is no one pattern that can tell us that there is one sense overpowering another that cannot be accounted for by culture. This means that the way we align our language with our senses, being more conscious of one more than the other, is more of a result of culture than the basic architecture of our brain or our senses. I was trying to understand this finding after a meeting I had where I was told that people online do not really like to listen to the audio of videos. They would always prefer to just see "audio" in the form of subtitles. This is how the online culture is ranking the sway of the senses on our perception and, more importantly, our reactions.

It was so interesting to find out too from the study that the large visual orbits that our eyes possess have evolved at the expense of the "smell cells" that humans have. This biological fact has reinforced the notion that perhaps the sense of sight indeed is the emperor of the human senses. But this study has demolished that. The number of receptors – the size of the army of that sense – do not really determine victory for that sense in the battle for perception. 

Our vocabulary, as this study showed, is shaped by what we sense. Thus, it will change as the planet changes. I cannot help but think, given where we are headed if we do not radically change the way we live: Will "lush," "animated," "cool," "sumptuous," and "fresh" still be words that we can use when we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell life? These words will also go silent when that life goes silent. Extinction is not just about species. It is also about language – thus, who we are, or in extinction's case, were. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at