What’s that Smell?

anthro blog #6

Of the five senses, people often regard smell as the least important and most dispensable. This is a Western view of the senses, and is not a universal view. In his article “Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages”, Greg Downey, an Australian professor of Anthropology, argues that our sense of smell is more powerful than we realize and that West’s underdeveloped sense of smell is a cultural problem. This argument is based on research conducted in the South Pacific which shows the range of words that exist in languages of the region to specifically and thoroughly describe different smells. He says, “When it comes to how language and culture affect perception, the nose may know… but only if it has the language to pin down what it knows.” Humans, and mammals in general, biologically have excellent olfactory senses (senses of smell), but that does not mean everyone uses their noses to their full ability. In addition, being able to detect a smell and then identify it is another skill that most do not posses.

Downey focuses on two languages from the Malay Peninsula, Jahai and Maniq, and their ability to identify smells. Western languages and cultures tend to think of smells based on where they came from, but in Jahai or Maniq terms for smells are more abstract and can be used to describe a variety of objects. Individuals who speak Jahai or Maniq also have an easier time identifying smell, whereas an individual from a Western culture may have trouble finding the words to describe what they smell. Downey cites studies performed to test people’s senses of smell and how most people would assume that the sense of smell is universal and says, “In other words, the cases of Maniq and Jahai olfactory terms, and the precision of their speakers on basic tests of olfactory ability, highlight the ‘WEIRD’ problem in our understanding of humans’ sensory abilities.” By looking at the way different cultures experience the different senses, we can gain insight to the way that our bodies function, and what factors can change or develop different parts of our body.

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