Colloquium du DEC

The limits of language: Why do some experiences elude communication?

Informations pratiques
25 juin 2024

ENS, Jaurès, 29 rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris


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 olfactory entities, for example, has been attributed the amount 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. 


Le Colloquium du DEC est l'événement incontournable de notre département. Il accueille chaque mois des conférences données par des expert.e.s de renommée mondiale dans divers domaines des sciences cognitives tels que les neurosciences, la psychologie, la linguistique, la philosophie et l'anthropologie.

Asifa Majid