This Language Names Odors As Precisely As English Speakers Name Color

By Ben Thomas | January 15, 2014 2:51 pm


Have you ever caught a whiff of perfume and found yourself grasping for the words to describe it? You might link the scent with a memory of an old romance, or a specific place – but when it comes to specific words for scents, the English language leaves us with a pretty limited toolbox. Though we can distinguish and name colors with acuity – crimson from scarlet from burgundy – we’re largely limited to vague scent terms, like “smoky” or “sweet.”

But do distinctions between odor seem equally blurry in other languages? Linguists Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Niclas Burenhul of Lund Universty in Sweden, suspected that this isn’t the case – and with good reason. The researchers knew that in at least one language – Jahai, which is spoken by certain Malaysian groups – words for smells are far more precise than those used by English speakers. So the scientists set up a series of experiments to test just how precise Jahai speakers’ scent concepts really are.

Words for Smells

The researchers gathered a group of 10 native Jahai speakers between the ages of 20 and 60, and an equivalent group of 10 native English speakers. All the participants sniffed a series of smell samples from the The Brief Smell Identification Test – a survey that researchers have used to test scent sensitivity since the early 80s – and were asked to name each one as precisely as they could. Then the volunteers looked through a series of color swatches, and did their best to give precise names to each of those as well.

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. The results were published in the journal Cognition.

Why Names Matter

Debates about how much language sculpts human thought have raged since the 1930s, when linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf first put forth the hypothesis that we can only think about concepts we can name. And although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of favor since the 60s, researchers have found that (for example) native Russian speakers can distinguish more subtle shades of blue than English speakers can, while an African tribe called the Himba can tell apart many colors that English speakers can’t – apparently because those cultures have more words to describe these shades.

Even if language doesn’t strictly limit the concepts you’re able to think about, it’s still easier to notice distinctions if you can put them into words. Which means that if you take the time to recognize the nuances of your favorite scents, you may find yourself developing a more elaborate smell vocabulary of your own.

Image by Blend Images / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: language, Senses
  • Morné Botha

    I don’t know, I guess not having read the full study doesn’t really qualify me to be too opinionated, but I find that the original criticism of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis still hold in this case.

    The smells which the Jahai speakers so easily translate to words are really not something your average person would ever have encountered like “bat droppings”, “durian fruit, Aquillaria wood, and bearcat”, I don’t even know what these things are. Imagine a native English speaker who lives on a mountain, in a forest… what smells would they readily describe…what about people who are experts at let’s say wine tasting?

    Maybe it’s more of a city dweller vs. non-city dweller thing…which is the opposite of Sapir-Whorf, meaning our environment shapes our language use, not the other way around, that language shapes the way we experience our environment.

    • Tim Sandberg

      Good point! An experienced wine taster has a very subtle vocabulary for describing aromas and flavours. Experience shapes language as much as language shapes conceptualization. I know what durian smells like, actually…..

    • Najjar

      I live in a family that uses four 4 languages in daily life and i am fluent in 3 of those and good at the fourth; I discovered that some “cultures” almost forbid their native language’s growth and adaption to environmental changes, which leads to limitation in experiencing the environment. This hinders literature prosperity; one of my languages’ culture is unable to accept romantic poetry or epics.

    • Christian Kleineidam

      The “The Brief Smell Identification Test” is created by Westernness for Westernners. There no reason to expect that a remote tribe like the Jahai automatically do better on it.

  • Nosey

    I think the point is that we don’t have a word to express “new car smell” or “stale cigarette smoke” the way they have single words that express the things mentioned in the article…


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