How Language changes Smell

In anthropology there has been a debate about whether or not our languages affect our senses. However, now the focus is on the sense of smell. The author, Gregory J. Downey, describes that for centuries prominent figures such as Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Immanuel Kant, and other Western thinkers have long said that “aroma offers humans little of value, that the sense of smell is vestigial, rudimentary, and under-developed.”

However, research has proved that our sense of smell can be acute, as in many mammals. The large portion of our brains used for the olfactory sense can sense, according to Japanese researchers, isoamyl mercaptan in proportions of .77 per trillion, a threshold lower than that of sight and hearing. Furthermore, according to Downey, research has found that mothers can identify their own baby by smell, and a six-day old baby can identify their mother. As acute as our sense of smell is, apparently research has found that we struggle with identifying aromas when we are blindfolded.

According to anthropologists, non-Western cultures give the sense of smell more attention than Western cultures. Downey discusses the work of Ewilina Wnuk and Asifa Majid that found that in the Maniq language of southern Thailand, there are fifteen words to describe different smells, which are not derived from their source. Interestingly, people of these cultures were able to identify and describe aromas that they have never encountered before better than people of Western cultures. Downey attributes this to the fact that people of the Maniq languages spend more time discussing the sense of smell and is therefore more familiar with this sense.

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