To what extent does perceptual language reflect universals of experience and cognition, and to what extent is it shaped by particular cultural preoccupations? This paper investigates the universality~relativity of perceptual language by examining the use of basic perception terms in spontaneous conversation across 13 diverse languages and cultures. We analyze the frequency of perception words to test two universalist hypotheses: that sight is always a dominant sense, and that the relative ranking of the senses will be the same across different cultures. We find that references to sight outstrip references to the other senses, suggesting a pan-human preoccupation with visual phenomena. However, the relative frequency of the other senses was found to vary cross-linguistically. Cultural relativity was conspicuous as exemplified by the high ranking of smell in Semai, an Aslian language. Together these results suggest a place for both universal constraints and cultural shaping of the language of perception.
©2015 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Munich/Boston