Odors Are More Expressible In Malay Hunter-Gatherer Language

English speakers struggle to name odors whereas speakers of Jahai, a Malay hunter-gatherer language, have an elaborate vocabulary for smells, researchers say.

AsianScientist (Jan. 14, 2014) – It is widely believed that people are bad at naming odors. This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain. But is this really so?

Psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen and linguist Niclas Burenhult from Lund University Sweden have found new evidence for smell language in the Malay Peninsula, and they report their findings in the journal Cognition.

English speakers struggle to name odors. While there are words such as blue or purple to describe colors, nothing comparable exists to name odors. Even with familiar everyday odors, such as coffee, banana and chocolate, English speakers only correctly name the smells around 50 percent of the time. This has led to the conclusion that smells defy words. Majid and Burenhult presented new evidence that this is not true in all languages.

The duo conducted research with speakers of Jahai, a hunter-gatherer language spoken in the Malay Peninsula. 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.

Are Jahai speakers better at naming odors? To test this Majid and Burenhult presented Jahai speakers, and a matched set of English speakers, with the same set of colors and odors to name. Each participant was simply asked to say “What color is this?” or “What odor is this?”

Responses were then compared on a number of measures, including length of response, type of response and speaker agreement in names. Majid and Burenhult found that Jahai speakers could name odors with the same conciseness and level of agreement as colors, but English speakers struggled to name odors. Jahai speakers overwhelmingly used abstract Jahai smell words to describe odors, whereas English speakers used mostly source-based descriptions (like a banana) or evaluative descriptions (that’s disgusting).

English speakers grapple to describe smells. Their responses for odors were five times longer than their responses for colors. This is despite the fact that the smells used in the experiment were familiar to English speakers but not necessarily to the Jahai speakers. For example, English speakers trying to name the smell of cinnamon gave a variety of answers: spicy, sweet, bayberry, candy, Red Hot, smoky, edible, wine, potpourri, etc.

These results question the view that there is a biological limitation for our inability to name smells. Jahai speakers have an elaborate vocabulary for smells that they use with fluency, which suggests that the inability to name smells is a product of culture and not biology.

The article can be found at: Majid A et al. (2014) Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.


Source: Radboud University Nijmegen; Photo: Dennis Wong/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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