What’s That Smell? – The Language of Scent

Of all holidays, Valentine’s Day is perhaps the most intimately associated with the sense of smell: exotic perfumes, fragrant flowers and rich chocolates are easy hallmarks of February 14. But although the scents of these tokens of love may be distinctive, the vocabulary used to describe them is surprisingly limited. Both tulips and truffles might simply be called “sweet,” while perfumers resort to a language where a smell is named after the thing that produces it, like “vanillic” for (you guessed it) vanilla scents. English is obviously unwieldy when it comes to explaining what the nose knows, but do all languages share this problem?

The English language has issues in describing the experience of smell. Courtesy of Radical Botany.

According to Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhul, a pair of Scandinavian linguists, the problem of describing smells with language is not universal. The two report that the language spoken by the Jahai people of peninsular Malaysia is unusually rich in words for precise scents. For example, the Jahai word “itpit” describes the common element underlying fragrant sources such as “durian fruit, Aquillaria wood, and bearcat,” while another term indicates “a bloody smell that attracts tigers.”

Majid and Burenhul pitted a group of Jahai speakers against a group of English speakers in the Brief Smell Identification Test, an established protocol for comparing the scenting ability of different people. Just like a set of scratch-and-sniff stickers, the test contains a set of fragrant molecules contained in tiny spheres, called microcapsules, that break to release odor when disturbed by a fingernail. The panel of 12 smells includes seemingly distinctive aromas such as banana, rose, smoke and onion.

When the English speakers were asked to describe the smells, they often struggled to find the right word and resorted to “source-based descriptors,” the linguistics term for naming a smell as what it smelled like. One particularly flummoxed participant, when asked to describe cinnamon, responded as follows:

“I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? Ok. Big Red. Big Red gum.”

In comparison, the Jahai speakers could confidently describe each scent using abstract descriptors, or words that drew on the common elements from different smells. English has plenty of abstract descriptors for color: “red,” for example, is used for objects as different as fire trucks and brick houses. Yet for smell, the language draws a blank.

The difference in abilities between the two groups can be taken as support for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory in linguistics claiming that the language available to people helps shape the patterns in which they think. The Jahai can rely on their advanced smell vocabulary to draw similarities between scents in a way that English speakers simply cannot, an ability vital to their livelihood as foragers. Of course, after this study, perhaps some of the Jahai will find work with Estee Lauder or Chanel.

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