21 Jan 2014

The Vocabulary of Odors


Jahai, photographed circa 1950.

In the American Scholar, Jessica Love admits that the English language is particularly rich in words for colors, tastes, and textures, but laments our language’s “lexical void” with respect to words for smells.

The solution, she explains, would be for English to follow its usual practice and borrow some words from the vocabulary of another language. In this case, we want to plunder the language used by about 1000 hunter gatherers in West Malaysia.

[A] new study by Majid and Burenhult… [identifies] Jahai, a language spoken by a [very small] hunter-gatherer group in Malaysia that has a sizeable vocabulary to characterize scents. Jahai has more than a dozen basic odor terms, including words that translate roughly to “having a stinging smell” (used to describe the odors of petrol, bat poop, and ginger root) and “having a bloody smell that attracts tigers” (used to describe, among other things, the odor of crushed head lice).

The researchers confirmed the Jahai olfactory lexicon by comparing the performances of Jahai speakers and English speakers on two different tasks: color-naming and scent-naming. Color-naming required individuals to describe 80 different colored chips as best they could, while scent-naming required them to sniff odors extracted from lemons, turpentine, smoke, and the like, and do the same. As a group, the English speakers all tended to agree—and pithily—on color terms, just as we’d expect given how strongly color terms are encoded in English. But they were stumped by scents, offering disagreeing, and long-winded, responses. Jahai speakers, on the other hand, experienced much less difficulty describing the odors, finding them just as codable as colors (though interestingly, they showed poorer agreement on color terms than English the speakers did).

Read the whole thing.



Although the volunteers tended to describe each smell and color in their own words, it quickly became clear that Jahai speakers could describe colors and odors with equal precision, while English speakers showed much less aptitude for smells than for colors. While Jahai speakers’ ability to distinguish smells averaged out just a few percentage points below their ability to distinguish colors, English speakers’ odor-naming precision averaged out to less than one tenth of their color distinction specificity.

Just as English has precise color terms like “mauve” and “cerulean,” Jahai has highly precise terms for smells – such as cŋεs, “the smell of petrol, smoke and bat droppings,” itpɨt, “the smell of durian fruit, Aquillaria wood, and bearcat,” pʔus “a musty smell, like old dwellings, mushrooms and stale food,” and plʔεŋ, “a bloody smell that attracts tigers.” English speakers, meanwhile, tended to rely on broader smell terms like “smoky,” “sweet,” “piney” and so on.

Complete article

Hat tip to the Dish.

2 Feedbacks on "The Vocabulary of Odors"


Hang with some wine afficionados for awhile and you will hear many words for smells. Also if you are willing to embrace the slang I think the English language is actually quite rich in the words it has for smells.


I wonder how an experienced wine taster would stack up in the smell-identifying biz. He would at least have a ready vocabulary for the subject, since smell and taste are so interrelated. OTOH, I’ve never found a Bourdeaux with a bat-poop finish. Thank God.


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