Thursday, May 21, 2015

English speakers, you stink at identifying smells

Why do English speakers struggle to identify even common smells like cinnamon, asks linguist Asifa Majid. Is it down to language itself, or our environment?

Why study the language of olfaction?
There are centuries-old ideas that humans have evolved to be visual or auditory creatures, and that our senses of smell, taste and touch just aren't as important any more. We're looking to see whether that's reflected in different languages as well.

Are there languages which excel at describing smells?
Speakers of the Aslian languages – found throughout the Malay Peninsula – are particularly good at expressing olfactory experiences. For the Jahai group, for example, who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we found that smell was as easy to talk about as colour – unlike in English.

How many smell words do the Jahai use?
They have about 12 that describe specific smell characteristics. These are words that can only be used for smells. For example, a term pronounced "pl'eng" is used for fresh blood, raw meat, mud, stagnant water, fresh fish, otters, some species of toad... These are different kinds of objects, but there seems to be a smell quality common to them.

What's a good smell-specific word in English?
A term in English that really picks up on a specific kind of smell quality is "musty" – something like when you open a door that's been closed for a long time, or maybe the smell of old books.

How good are English speakers at articulating what they smell?
We gave Jahai speakers and English speakers the same smell and asked them to describe it. Jahai speakers were quick and consistent. With English speakers, nearly everybody gave a different and lengthy description for the same smell. For the smell of cinnamon, for example, one participant went on and on, like "I don't know how to say it" and "I can't get the word" and "like that chewing gum smell" and finally "Big Red gum". It was hard for most English speakers to identify even the common smell of cinnamon.

Why do English speakers struggle when the Jahai don't?
Perhaps it's because the Jahai live in a tropical rainforest, where smells are simply more salient. But there seems to be something culturally different, too: people in the West seem to do everything they can to get rid of smells, and in many contexts odour is a taboo topic. This might be linked to changes in our smell environment since the industrial revolution. If you read stories from the UK or France from before the revolution, there's sewage in the streets and people are using perfume to cover up body odour. These days, we do everything we can to sanitise our environment.

What lessons do you draw from your cross-cultural studies of smell?
Our work with the Jahai is exciting because it shows us that we have the potential to experience our environment in so many different ways. It makes you rethink your way of being in the world.

Landau, Elizabeth. 2015. “English speakers, you stink at identifying smells”. New Scientist. Posted: March 30, 2015. Available online:

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