A Language for Smells

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We use our sense of smell all the time, even when we aren’t aware of it. In fact, most of what we perceive as our sense of taste is actually smell. However, as important as our sense of smell is, when it comes time to actually describe what we’re smelling, words often fail us. Even wine industry professionals like sommeliers, people who spend considerable amounts of time training their noses, cannot consistently or accurately describe what their nose is telling them. This inability to describe odors with the same precision as colors or sounds has led some scientists to hypothesize that the part of the brain that processes smells simply does not connect well with the part that processes language.

However, new linguistic research on a small Malaysian hunter-gatherer tribe has called that hypothesis into question. In the Jahai language, smells can be described much like colors. AsianScientist.com explains,

” In Jahai there are around a dozen different words to describe different qualities of smell. For example, ltpɨt is used to describe the smell of various flowers and ripe fruit, durian, perfume, soap, Aquilaria wood, bearcat, etc. Cŋɛs, another smell word, is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings and bat caves, some species of millipede, root of wild ginger, etc. These terms refer to different odor qualities and are abstract, in the same way that blue and purple are abstract.”

A pair of researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen and Lund University Sweden performed an experiment to see if Jahai speakers were better at identifying odors than English speakers.   When presented with the same sets of colors and odors, English speakers took five times as long to describe smells, while “Jahai speakers could name odors with the same conciseness and level of agreement as colors.”

So, it’s not that we can’t describe smells, it’s that we don’t have the words.

It’s amazing how much our language shapes our experience of the world! Or is it the other way around?

Attribution Some rights reserved by wsmith