Finding words for the sensate is one of our greatest linguistic challenges. The description is on the tip of our tongues, brushing the edges of our sensory memories, tingling in our fingertips. Often the sensory doesn’t need description – a delicious meal eaten in silent appreciation, someone’s pain written in the creases of their face.
There are occasions however when we need to describe sensations. It might be a choreographer who wants to share with her dancers how to position their agile limbs, a wine critic who has to write about why this wine is so good or a doctor who needs to share the sounds that they heard in their patient’s lungs with a colleague.
During a presentation I gave on training the senses with dance dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers in Maastricht recently [insert link to event], I conducted a little experiment for people to try and articulate sensations. I distributed cards on a table and asked the audience to smell vials from a wine tasting smell kit. The reactions to the scents were fascinating. Some of the vials incited almost the same word in most responders. Almost everyone identified the scent officially described as “pear” for example, as “pear”. Another scent highlighted the difficulties of finding the right word. Officially described as “toast”, this little vial evoked responses that varied from popcorn and Dorito chips, to smelly feet and dirty socks.
Scientific studies have shown that many people cannot even agree on basic tastes such as sour and bitter. While this might perturb the scientists, the wine critic or the doctor, there is also something rather delightful in how what smells like popcorn to one person is a dirty sock to another. Our linguistic challenge shows the vividness of our own imaginations when we give ourselves a moment to smell, the autobiographical nature of our sensory memories, and the, thankfully, diverse ways we all have of going about the world.
Post by: Anna Harris