Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The languages of human smell

Majid does an interesting review titled "Human Olfaction at the Intersection of Language, Culture, and Biology" that points out there are many languages across the globe that have much larger smell lexicons than English, which has relatively few words for smell qualities. Here is the beginning summary from the review, which also makes the point that the common view of human olfaction as vestigial and impoverished is incorrect, as is the claim that smell is ineffable (impossible to put into words).   


The human sense of smell is far more acute than previously thought, yet it is still commonly believed that there is no language of smell.
In English there are, indeed, few words for smell qualities, smell talk is infrequent, and people find it difficult to name odors in the laboratory. However, the cross-cultural data show a different picture.
There are many languages across the globe that have large smell lexicons (smell can even appear in grammar) in which smell talk is also more frequent and naming odors is easy.
In different cultural and ecological niches odors play a significant role in everyday life.
These differences in smell language can have consequences for how people think about odors.
The human sense of smell can accomplish astonishing feats, yet there remains a prevailing belief that olfactory language is deficient. Numerous studies with English speakers support this view: there are few terms for odors, odor talk is infrequent, and naming odors is difficult. However, this is not true across the world. Many languages have sizeable smell lexicons — smell is even grammaticalized. In addition, for some cultures smell talk is more frequent and odor naming easier. This linguistic variation is as yet unexplained but could be the result of ecological, cultural, or genetic factors or a combination thereof. Different ways of talking about smells may shape aspects of olfactory cognition too. Critically, this variation sheds new light on this important sensory modality.

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