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Is smell for the dogs?

By Barbara Malt

Dogs are the noses of modern society. They not only track the scent of prey across a meadow but find lost children, sniff out bombs and drugs, and conduct medical diagnosis. Pigs are good, too; we rely on them to hunt down rare and expensive truffles. Domestic cats can turn in an impressive performance, pawing out the last crumb of tuna sandwich at the bottom of a workbag. But humans? To most of us, the sense of smell is something that seems a little primitive. We like things that smell good and shy away from things that smell bad. But we don’t want to think about smell too much. We certainly don’t want to lower our noses to the ground, stick them into containers, or put them on each other.


Likewise, smell is something we don’t talk about much. In fact, it seems hard to do. Try to list all the words for smells you can. There’s sweet. Then there’s fresh, musty, and rotten. Before long, you run out. From there, we tend to describe an odor by analogy to some familiar source: it smells like an old sneaker; it smells like my grandmother’s house. That’s a very different situation from color, where most of us can list color words at some length before resorting to analogy to specific objects or experiences. There’s not just red, white, and blue, but mauve, magenta, crimson, maroon, navy, teal, beige, tan, and so on. This jives with our sense that modern humans are visual beings, and an acute interest in smell is something we gave up long ago in evolutionary history.

It could be that there are some modern exceptions to this general trend. People who work in industries that revolve around smell might develop a specialized vocabulary of smell terms. But it turns out that they don’t do that much, either. Their terminology relies heavily on references to sources: citrus, earthy, floral, mossy, woody.

All these observations have led to a consensus that odors are ineffable. They just can’t be expressed well in words. They’re too abstract, too ephemeral, and too distant from the concerns of modern-day humans for our brains to encode them in ways necessary for putting them into words.

But this assumes that what is true for English smell vocabulary is true for everyone. That’s a big assumption. Cognitive scientists Asifa Majid, Niclas Burenhult, and their colleagues have recently found that some non-Western cultures have much richer sets of odor terms. They studied the Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers who live in a region of mountainous rainforest in Malaysia near the border with Thailand. They found that the Jahai have over a dozen smell terms that are similar in nature to English color words red, blue, green, and so on. The terms consist of single words, and they are not linked to specific sources and can be applied to a wide range of instances.

Now, Majid and Burenhult have asked a further important question: How effectively do the Jahai actually use all these terms? Maybe somehow they invented these terms but don’t have distinct meanings attached to them and can’t use them with consistency. If that were true, then the Jahai are not so different from English speakers after all. Majid and Burenhult traveled to Malaysia to test 10 native speakers of Jahai on scratch-‘n-sniff-type samples of 12 different odors. Their participants were asked to name each odor in Jahai. For comparison, they were shown color chips and asked to name each one. Ten speakers of American English were also asked to do these tasks.

English speakers showed very low agreement on names for odors, and their answers often involved long, idiosyncratic, source-based descriptions like “…It’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red.” In contrast, their color naming was much more consistent and relied more on non-source-based single words like red. This supports the popular beliefs about English.

The results for Jahai were different. There was much more agreement on odor naming for the Jahai than for Americans. In fact, for the Jahai, odors showed as much agreement as color did. Jahai speakers used single-word, non-source-based names for odors just as much as they did for colors. So for the Jahai, odors are no more ineffable than colors. As Majid and Burenhult put it, odors are expressible in language as long as you speak the right language.

That means that our assumptions about the relation of the modern human mind and brain to odor need to be rethought. Our Western, industrialized society may not care so much about smell. We may not think much about smell or talk much about smell. We might even think that talking about smells is sometimes yucky. But it’s not because human minds or brains have reached a point in their evolution where we just can’t deal with smell. Smell is not just for the dogs.

Barbara Malt is a Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University. She is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition and a co-editor of Words and the Mind: How Words Capture the Human Experience. She is interested in language, thought, and the relation between the two.

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Image credit: dog’s snout. macro. shallow DOF. © yoglimogli via iStockphoto.

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