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.


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When we think of the word aroma, we automatically associate it with something pleasant and then we create a certain image in our mind of what it is we smell. Many other cultures are a lot more descriptive when describing a scent. This Is what makes every culture so different.

This is supported in the article,  “What’s in an aroma? Languages with odour vocabularies” by Gregory J. Downey, an anthropologists report states that many non-Western cultures devote much greater attention to aroma than Europeans or North Americans do.

Another example used that is used is the Maniq and Jahai scent descriptors who cover a very wide range of variety but don’t cover the actual source. An example given in the article is a Maniq scent term which is linked to a very wide range of reference which talks about mushrooms, water, mud, bamboo, soil, sweat, urine. When we describe a certain smell we usually use words such as “sweet”, “strong”, or “flowery”. We never usually associate it to something specifically. The comparison of these two different cultures helps us determine why it is usually so hard for us English speaks to describe an odor and for other cultures it is so easy. Because, they have such a rich vocabulary to choose from it makes them so easy to describe something.

Describing a scent is something easy to do but for many cultures there is a specialized vocabulary which needs to be used. For many cultures that vocabulary used then leads to a more sophisticated and highly trained sensory system. Anthropologists use this example to explain that even simple everyday tasks which might very simple for one culture can be completely different for another which explain how diverse and unique every culture is.

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”.

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.


Scent Perception Has Nothing to Do with Your Nose

Have you ever smelled a particularly strong odor, but not been able to describe exactly what you were smelling? Or perhaps the closest you could come to describing the smell was to compare it to something else. This inability to smell accurately has become so ingrained in Western culture that, according to Gregory J. Downey in his article “What’s in an Aroma? Languages with Odour Vocabularies”, the sense of smell has come to be considered our least important sense as humans.

Rather than blaming the ability of our own noses, however, Downey suggests that this inaccuracy of smell may all be thanks to the languages that we speak. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is an anthropological hypothesis that the language a person speaks directly affects the culture that person experiences, an idea that can be directly applied to Downey’s theory. The reason that we cannot smell accurately thus may have more to do with the words used to describe smells than the act of smelling itself.

This idea is further supported by study of several cultures that speak languages in the Austraoasiatic language group. These cultures, rather than basing their descriptions of scents off of other sources the way that Western cultures do, instead have their own scent categories and terms similarly to the categories and terms Westerners use to describe colors. This allows them to demonstrate a higher accuracy of smell despite the fact that they are smelling the same scents as Westerners.

In addition, the speakers of these languages were able to identify scents of items (such as paint thinner and gasoline) that they had never before encountered. This is further proof that the languages we speak directly impacts our perception of culture, not the least element of which is our ability to smell with accuracy.

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Source: http://popanth.com/article/whats-in-an-aroma-languages-with-odour-vocabularies