The Vocabulary of Smell in Southeastern Asia

Western culture generally ranks the sense of smell as the least important of the traditional 5 senses. Often times, westerners can’t even identify the smell of some foods they regularly consumed. Most people will try to rationalize this by saying that the sense has degenerated with evolution. But is our poor recognition of scents completely because of biology?

Firstly, humanity’s sense of smell may not be as dulled as we presume. We can sniff out some mercaptan compounds at lower levels than we detect light and sound. Mother and child can also pick out the scent of each other easily. Then, if our noses aren’t totally obsolete, why can’t most people describe smell? The answer may lie in our language.

Maniq and Jahai, two languages spoken in Thailand and on the Malay Peninsula respectively, reflect their cultures’ deep appreciation of the olfactory experience. They have as many as 15 terms used to describe scents. These terms are almost exclusively used to refer to smells alone, and are as abstract and as distinct as colors. They are also not associated with just one source, as Western languages tend to do. Furthermore, these terms are not subjective: native speakers of Jahai can independently smell a compound and all come up with the same descriptive word.

This is almost unimaginable to Western culture- how can you possibly describe something as vague as smell in such clear cut terms? It makes more sense when one thinks of smell in relation to the perception of other senses. We can detect miniscule differences in hue and pitch, after all; theres no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do something similar with smells.



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