Words for odours

Recent research by Majid etal. has found a language that has words for abstract odours. Here is the abstract:


From Plato to Pinker there has been the common belief that the experience of a smell is impossible to put into words. Decades of studies have confirmed this observation. But the studies to date have focused on participants from urbanized Western societies. Cross-cultural research suggests that there may be other cultures where odors play a larger role. The Jahai of the Malay Peninsula are one such group. We tested whether Jahai speakers could name smells as easily as colors in comparison to a matched English group. Using a free naming task we show on three different measures that Jahai speakers find it as easy to name odors as colors, whereas English speakers struggle with odor naming. Our findings show that the long-held assumption that people are bad at naming smells is not universally true. Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.”


I think the important thing about the dozen or so Jahai words is that they are abstract (like our words for colours – only our word for orange might seem to refer to a concrete object but it is probably the other way around). They are words that describe different qualities of smell. Jahai and English speakers were tested with “what colour is this?” and “what odour is this?” questions. Answers were compared by the time it took to answer, the type of answer, and how much the speakers agreed with one another in the words they used. Jahai speakers answered the same to colour and odour questions in time, type of words and agreement. English speakers took 5 times longer to answer odour questions compared to colour ones. The answers varied in type and did not agree across the speakers. So it seems the not having words for odours is cultural and not a biological fact of the brains architecture.


But this is not a new idea. We have known for many years that there are people who learn to identify odours, have agreed words for abstract types of odour. They are the perfumers and the people who do quality control on wines, cheeses and other products which depend on their odour for much of their quality. These professionals use specific terminologies to describe and classify the components of the odours they are interested in. A recent paper by Royet and others looks at the nature and acquisition of this skill. Here is some of what they have to say about the language of odours.


…perfumers (or wine professionals) are less prone to classify odors in terms of their hedonic quality than non-experts, suggesting that they are able to discern (or label) perceptual qualities not available to untrained individuals. Chollet and Valentin suggested that the perceptual representation of wine is similar in experts and novices but the verbalization of this representation varies with the level of expertise. Experts use analytical terms, whereas non-experts use holistic terms…it was demonstrated, in an experimental frame, that discrimination and memory performances can partly be improved by verbalization of the stimuli or the knowledge of their names.


With regards to olfaction, the widespread assertion is that it is very difficult for the average person to mentally imagine odors, in contrast to our ability to mentally imagine images, sounds, or music. Despite behavioral and psychophysical studies demonstrating the existence of odor imagery, several authors have even claimed that recalling physically absent odors is not possible. However, odor experts do not appear to have difficulty in mentally smelling odors. When perfumers are questioned, they claim that they are quite able to do this and that these images provide the same sensations as the olfactory experiences evoked by odorous stimuli themselves.”


I would assume that the big difference between the Jahai speaker and the perfumer is that the perfumer is learning a language and skill as an adult while the Jahai child learns the odour words at the same time as the colour words. We are not talking about a language type difference or a sensory difference but a cultural one – how important is odour to the culture? When and why are individuals taught to identify odours and to be able to converse about them?


Jean-Pierre Royet, J Plailly, A Saive, A Veyrac, & C Delon-Martin (213). The impact of expertise in olfaction Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00928

Majid A, & Burenhult N (2014). Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Cognition, 130 (2), 266-70 PMID: 24355816

2 thoughts on “Words for odours

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