Shape and size, their role in nominal classification systems and the hierarchy of sense modalities in tropical forests

Event details


Date & time

Friday 14 August 2015


Seminar Room B (Arndt Room), HC Coombs Building (9), Fellows Road, ANU


Roger Blench


Fanny Cottet

Modern humans almost certainly evolved in open savannas, and most researchers now consider that language developed an early stage of dispersal. It would therefore be unsurprising if the sense modalities of languages co-evolved with survival strategies in such an environment. The dates for the first occupation of dense tropical forests is more controversial, but archaeology suggests that it was significantly later, certainly in the Amazon and probably in equatorial Africa and SE Asia. One of the most characteristic features of language in the tropics is the presence of systems of nominal classification, both noun classes and numeral classifiers. A characteristic feature of these systems in forest environments is the denotation of shape and size, categories which are much less salient in language spoken in open environments. It is argued that these developed to rapidly and effectively communicate survival information in visually confusing environments. This is illustrated with field data from Africa and NE India, as well as comparative material from descriptions of Amazonian languages. In addition, in the forest environment, naming and classifying characteristic odours is also important and it seems that languages with a rich repertoire of odour terms (usually ideophones) tend to occur in the tropics. A hierarchy of sense modalities is proposed in relation to tropical forest environments, with an argument as to how these switch around in open landscapes.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster