What’s in an Aroma?

We live the in the world experiencing everything with just five senses: touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell. For some time anthropologists have debated whether the way people talk can have an effect on the way we experience senses. In his article “What’s in an Aroma? Languages with Odor Vocabularies”, Gregory J. Downey discusses how the way we speak can have an effect on the aromas we smell. Charles Darwin once stated that olfaction was “of extremely slight service” and many other great thinkers have gone on to say that aroma offers little value and in the most dispensable of all the senses, however new linguistic research has emerged that might suggest otherwise.

Downey sates that “our inability to smell with precision might be a cultural problem, not an invariant limit of human nature” and later says “when it comes to how language affects perception, the nose may know… but only if it has the language to pin down what it perceives”. There are some aromas that have been evolutionarily seared into our minds, like gasoline and matchsticks, which over time humans have gained an intense ability to recognize in order to survive. However, when it comes to everyday scents humans, and especially Europeans and North Americans, have a very difficult time being able to identify the smells let alone describe them.

Non-western cultures like the Maniq in Thailand have a much more precise way of describing scents then western cultures. The Maniq have fifteen distinct terms to describe smells whereas western countries normally try to determine a scent by comparing one scent to another that is similar. Another culture known as the Jahai from the Malay Peninsula have a very precise set of terms to describe aromas. Members of the Jahai took the standardized Brief Smell Identification Test (B-SIT) to try to identify twelve different aromas and were able to accurately describe the smell even if they had never encountered it before. Some may say that smell is the most useless sense to a human, however the usefulness of smell may really lie in one’s ability to accurately describe it.