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Language is the key to understanding the diversity of our senses

Niclas Burenhult
Niclas Burenhult

Linguist Niclas Burenhult has been awarded close to SEK 14 million by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for his field project Language as key to perceptual diversity: an interdisciplinary approach to the senses.

“We like to believe that everyone perceives the world in the same way. But studying small and lesser-known languages and cultures reveals an incredible diversity in how people describe sensory impressions. In our culture, we think that vision is the dominant and most important sense. Westerners have difficulty describing smells, even ordinary ones like coffee and chocolate, whereas the small language Jahai in Malaysia has abstract words for different smells just as we have them for colours”, says Niclas Burenhult.

The project will broadly investigate the “language of the senses” via interviews, texts and experiments and in culturally relevant contexts such as hunting, myths and rituals. This will allow researchers to observe which senses are represented in descriptions of the environment, and the role played by sounds and smells, for example. In addition to field linguists, the research team also includes historians of religions, geographers and cognitive psychologists. 

“The language observatories are located in the Malay Peninsula – where I studied the hunter-gatherer language in previous projects, on Borneo, where we will be studying the Penan language, and finally in Ghana where we will investigate the Avatime language”, says Niclas Burenhult.

One of the languages which Niclas Burenhult studied previously in Malaysia, spoken by a group of hunter-gatherers who live along a major river system, uses the direction of the water-flow – upstream and downstream – to describe spatial relations, even on a small scale for which we would use the concepts of right and left in languages such as English or Swedish.

“A person could say ‘My downstream knee hurts’, referring to the knee downstream from the other one at the time”, explains Niclas Burenhult, who thinks the system is brilliant as it does not allow for the egocentrical misunderstandings that can occur with the right/left distinction.

“It is well worth studying lesser-known language environments – they tell us a lot about the variation in how humans perceive the world, thereby providing us naturally with a greater insight into what it means to be human”, he continues.

Another of the project’s goals is to preserve the many unique data generated in a sustainable and responsible manner for future research. Some of the languages studied in the project will probably disappear completely within 10 to 30 years.

“The grant from RJ is fantastic and provides us with an opportunity to consolidate and build in an innovative way on the research specialisation and the contacts we have already established in our previous major projects, such as the ERC project LACOLA and our language documentation projects in various parts of the world”, concludes a very satistifed Niclas Burenhult.


The SEK 13 657 000 grant for the project Language as key to perceptual diversity: an interdisciplinary approach to the senses is one of eight awarded in the RJ jubilee call for applications, New outlooks for Humanities and Social Sciences, worth SEK 100 million.

The members of the project are Niclas Burenhult, linguist and project manager, Lund University, Asifa Majid, cognitive psychologist from Radboud University in Nijmegen, Ross Purves, geographer from the University of Zürich, Mikael Rothstein, historian of religions from the University of Southern Denmark , Peter Sercombe, linguist from Newcastle University, and Saskia van Putten, linguist from Leiden University.

Niclas Burenhult, Associate Professor of General Linguistics
niclas [dot] burenhult [at] ling [dot] lu [dot] se

+46 46 222 88 17