UCL Anthropology


Ewelina Wnuk

Ewelina Wnuk

Culture as a birthplace of meaning

Our everyday language categories such as eat and drink or green and blue might seem natural to us, but they’re far from universal. People around the world differ in how they partition their experience and package it into words, indicating that local factors such as culture, society, environment, and language itself play a significant role in shaping meaning. What is their role exactly and how do they interact with universal pressures stemming from our shared biology and cognition?

Ewelina’s work addresses these questions among hunter-gatherer societies of Thailand, focusing especially on the domain of perception and emotion. In 2018, she was awarded a Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship within the ERC Horizon 2020 program to study how sociocultural forces contribute to shaping the emotion lexicon in hunter-gatherer languages.

Fieldsite Maniq

Since 2009, Ewelina has been doing fieldwork among the Maniq [ma’niʔ] (Northern Aslian, Austroasiatic), a 300-speaker population of Semang nomadic hunter-gatherers of southern Thailand. Her dissertation work carried out at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen combines a descriptive account of the language (i.e., a grammar sketch, see also Maniq sound system) with an in-depth semantic investigation within the domain of perception verbs.

In 2018, she began working with the Mlabri (Khmuic, Austroasiatic), a recently settled hunter-gatherer group of northern Thailand numbering about 400 individuals.

Research interests

  • cross-cultural semantics
  • verb semantics
  • “verbiness”
  • word class distinctions, verb-to-noun continuum
  • emotion and perception (especially smell)
  • language documentation and language description
  • Austroasiatic and Southeast Asian linguistics
  • general linguistic typology, lexico-semantic typology

Selected publications

Wnuk, E. (2016). Semantic specificity of perception verbs in Maniq. PhD Thesis, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen.

Wnuk, E. (2016). Specificity at the basic level in event taxonomies: The case of Maniq verbs of ingestion. In A. Papafragou, D. Grodner, D. Mirman, & J. Trueswell (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2016) (pp. 2687-2692). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Wnuk, E., & Burenhult, N. (2014). Contact and isolation in hunter-gatherer language dynamics: Evidence from Maniq phonology (Aslian, Malay Peninsula). Studies in Language, 38(4), 956-981. doi:10.1075/sl.38.4.06wnu.

Wnuk, E., & Majid, A. (2014). Revisiting the limits of language: The odor lexicon of Maniq. Cognition, 131, 125-138. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.12.008.

For full publication list, work background, teaching experience, and media coverage see Full CV below