Meaning, Culture and Cognition

Centre for Language Studies | Faculty of Arts | Radboud University Nijmegen

Colloquium Categories, Diversity and Contact

Room: E 1.06
Date: Wednesday June 17th 2015
Time: 15:30 – 17ː00
Carolyn O’Meara: Seri smell verbs in the context of a changing smellscape

The sense of smell has been widely viewed in various disciplines as inferior to other senses, such as vision, 
touch and taste (Henning 1916; Plato 1961; among others). This general view corresponds with the lack of treatment of olfaction in ethnographies, similar to what has been observed with respect to the treatment of the senses across disciplines (Majid & Levinson 2011). This lack of attention could be related to the fact that linguists or anthropologists describing a particular language or society are predisposed to expect that olfaction is not elaborated due to the lack of odor lexicalization in the particular language they speak and the odor categories they are predisposed to (Levinson & Majid 2014).

As a response to this tendency in the literature, here I look at data from the olfactory lexicon in the Seri language, an isolate spoken by a traditionally hunter-gatherer society along the coast of northwestern Mexico. Of particular interest are the abstract odor concepts that are lexicalized and the cultural role these odor concepts play in traditional Seri practices, many of which are becoming less salient in everyday Seri culture due to changes in their lifestyle as a result of increasing contact with the neighboring non-Seri Mexicans. In other words, they are undergoing a change to their everyday smellscape. The Seri odor lexicon consists of monolexemic stative verbs that do not make reference to a particular odor source, as is illustrated with two examples in (1).

a. -heemt ‘used to describe smell of feces, rotten food, sea lion, whale, dolphin, shark, things that come from the sea’
b. -asa ‘same extension as -heemt, but according to one speaker, shows little respect and can be offensive’

In addition to their use as verbal predicates, the stative smell verb roots in Seri can be observed in lexicalized expressions that refer to plants, animals and states, as shown in (2), where the smell root is bolded.

a. haapis casa ‘coyote tobacco (Nicotiana trigonophylla)’ (lit. tobacco that stinks)
b. ziix yacop casa ‘earwig (Dermaptera)’ (lit. thing whose stinger stinks)
c. hant cheemt ‘be bad weather’ (lit. land that stinks)
d. iisax cheemt ‘be mad’ (lit. its spirit that stinks)
e. ihiim cheemt ‘have nightmare’ (lit. its dream stinks)
f. imoz cöcasa ‘detest [food]’ (lit. its heart where it stinks)

Contrary to sensory meaning extensions in English where smell has few abstract connotations (Sweetser 1991), Seri expressions with odor roots, as shown in (2), can be used to indicate internal mental or emotional states, such as being mad, having a nightmare or detesting a particular kind of food. Taking into
consideration the important cultural role olfaction plays in Seri culture in curing practices as well as in personal adornment, it is not surprising that in the Seri lexicon we observe a metaphorical extension between these two domains, where smell serves as the source domain to metaphorically express emotional or mental states.

Henning, H. 1916. Der Geruch. Leipzig, Germany: J.A. Barth. (Originally published in 1824.)
Levinson, S.C. & A. Majid. 2014. Differential ineffability and the senses. Mind & Language 29(4): 407-427.
Majid, A., S.C. Levinson. 2011. The senses in language and culture. The Senses and Society 6(1): 5-18.
Plato. 1961. The Collected Dialogues, edited by E. Hamilton and H. Cairns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Sweetser, Eve. 1991. From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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