Scent Perception Has Nothing to Do with Your Nose

Have you ever smelled a particularly strong odor, but not been able to describe exactly what you were smelling? Or perhaps the closest you could come to describing the smell was to compare it to something else. This inability to smell accurately has become so ingrained in Western culture that, according to Gregory J. Downey in his article “What’s in an Aroma? Languages with Odour Vocabularies”, the sense of smell has come to be considered our least important sense as humans.

Rather than blaming the ability of our own noses, however, Downey suggests that this inaccuracy of smell may all be thanks to the languages that we speak. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is an anthropological hypothesis that the language a person speaks directly affects the culture that person experiences, an idea that can be directly applied to Downey’s theory. The reason that we cannot smell accurately thus may have more to do with the words used to describe smells than the act of smelling itself.

This idea is further supported by study of several cultures that speak languages in the Austraoasiatic language group. These cultures, rather than basing their descriptions of scents off of other sources the way that Western cultures do, instead have their own scent categories and terms similarly to the categories and terms Westerners use to describe colors. This allows them to demonstrate a higher accuracy of smell despite the fact that they are smelling the same scents as Westerners.

In addition, the speakers of these languages were able to identify scents of items (such as paint thinner and gasoline) that they had never before encountered. This is further proof that the languages we speak directly impacts our perception of culture, not the least element of which is our ability to smell with accuracy.