Login with your Reed credentials to view all events.

The Limits of Language: Why do Some Experiences Elude Communication?

Why are some things relatively easy to express in language (e.g., geometric shapes) but others hard (e.g., odors)? Various explanations have been suggested for this differential ineffability (i.e., the impossibility of putting phenomena into words). Perhaps it is due to something fundamental about the cognitive architecture of our mind~brains. The ease of naming visual as opposed to olfactory entities, for example, has been attributed to the amount of brain area devoted to processing each sensory modality. Accordingly, there appear to be asymmetries in our ability to represent sensory information—studies show people generally report vivid visual and auditory imagery, for example, but only weak smell and taste imagery. Based on fieldwork and laboratory studies, I illustrate how differential expressibility across the senses reflects cultural, not just cognitive, biases. Things that elude description in English are nevertheless easily conveyed in other languages, highlighting the role culture and experience play in understanding the nature and limits of language and cognition.

Free and open to the public. Co-sponsored by the Office for Institutional Diversity.

Event Details