What’s That Smell?


Despite one of our dominant senses being smell, our culture lacks the language to describe smells. In the Banthad Mountains of southern Thailand, a few hundred people speak the language of Maniq, which has fifteen different terms to identify smells. Furthermore, when identifying smells the Maniq use abstract sensory properties that “perceive patterns, such as which smells are more likely to attract tigers to their settlements” (Downey). In comparison, instead of using scent terms, we identify the source of the smell. We simply do not have the language to identify these smells.

Susanne Langer asserts that each language gives us access to a different symbolic system; therefore, our language does not have a proper referent to the reality—the smell. In his piece, “What’s in an Aroma? Languages with odour vocabularies,”  Gregory J. Downey states, “the researchers argue that these are “basic” aroma terms in the same sense that we talk about “basic” colours: one-word descriptors, shared by almost everyone in the group, that do not refer to the source, and are used for a variety of objects.” The English language does not have the capacities to identify smell in  the same way in which the Maniq classify smell, thus, leaving us at a disadvantage to the behaviors and vocabulary of the olfactory system.