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New linguistic project examines olfactory vocabularies

Thomas Hörbergs has been awarded grants from the The Swedish Research Council for the upcoming research project ”Grundläggande lukttermer: mot en universell semantisk rymd för lukter”. The aim of the project is to show whether there is a "universal" olfactory-semantic space.

Thomas Hörberg is a researcher in general linguistics at the Department of Linguistics. He recently was granted SEK 5 millions for the interdisciplinary project ”Grundläggande lukttermer: mot en universell semantisk rymd för lukter".'


Project on olfactory vocabularies

In order to determine whether there is a “universal” olfactory-semantic space, the project will investigate semantic differences and similarities between vocabularies used to describe odors in culturally diverse languages. The semantic organization of olfactory vocabularies is derived with a novel, data-driven method that uses natural texts (corpora), on the one hand, and more traditional, lexical-typological methods, on the other. The project is divided into three parts:

  • In part 1 of the project, the corpus-based method is used to derive the olfactory vocabularies of English, Swedish, Italian and Thai. The method automatically identifies odor expressions based on their olfactory association (quantified from their corpus distributions), and then derive the semantic space of those expressions using distributional-semantic word embedding models.
  • Part 2 consists of a lexical-typological study of the olfactory vocabularies of a sample of linguistically diverse languages with well-developed, dedicated olfactory vocabularies. Here, elicitation-based methods such as exemplar listings and similarity judgments are used.
  • Part 3 consolidates the findings from the corpus-based and lexical-typological studies, in order to draw more general conclusions about how languages map out the perceptual space of odors and whether olfactory vocabularies differ in culturally relevant ways.

The aim of the project is to show whether there is “universal” olfactory-semantic space, and will thus provide a key theoretical contribution to the field of linguistics.

More about Thomas Hörberg

Färgglatt diagram över luktord i engelskan.
Chart of english expressions used to describe odors.