Language and the Senses

If you see something you’ve never seen before – or maybe you have seen before – but you do not have the language to be able to specifically identify what it is, your experience will be different from someone who does have the language to identify it. Similar to sight, smell is an important sense that has gotten a lot of attention recently, especially in relation to the languages we speak.

In the article “What’s in an Aroma? Languages with Odour Vocabularies” by Gregory Downey, the importance of language in terms of smells is discussed. As evolution has progressed, the genes for vision have become more dominant. However, we still have plenty of genes for our sense of smell: “[There are] 853 genes for olfactory receptors, 466 are non-functioning in humans”. This statistic is quite startling. However, even though many genes are non functional, that doesn’t mean that our sense of smell cannot be refined. Even without a refined sense of smell, most humans can still smell certain chemical compounds in small amounts, as small as 0.2 parts per billion (which is equivalent to three drops of the chemical in an olympic sized swimming pool!).

Even though our noses are pretty amazing and can smell small amounts of certain things, it doesn’t mean we can all identify what they are. In most western cultures, out ability to identify certain smells is quite awful: “In laboratory tests of aroma identification, typical psychology subjects flounder badly: they’re about 50% accurate with everyday aromas. Performing this poorly with any other sense would be considered a sign of possible brain injury”.

One of the reasons that most Western cultures do so poorly is because they do not put a lot of emphasis on or give much attention to smell. However, in the Maniq language, spoken by some people in Southern Tailand, there are 15 distinctive terms to describe smells, and none of them refer to the source. What is meant by referring to the source is saying that something is “banana-scented”. Referring to the source to describe a scent is often used in Western cultures because we simply do not have the language to describe what it is.

Also, those who spoke Maniq were extremely accurate in describing smells, even if they had never encountered them before. This goes to show that the human sense of smell can be refined, but only if they have the vocabulary to refine their sense of smell. “Speakers of Maniq, like wine tasters and perfumers, make vividly apparent how much the human sense of smell can be refined. A community with an aroma vocabulary engages in a range of behaviors, such as talking about aroma, calling attention to scents, and focusing their attention on olfaction that, reinforced with a specialized vocabulary, leads its members to develop a sophisticated, highly-trained sensory system for smelling”.