Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language

Date:
January 3, 2014
Source:
Radboud University Nijmegen
Summary:
It is widely believed that people are bad at naming odors. This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain. But is this really so? New evidence for smell language has been found in the Malay Peninsula.

It is widely believed that people are bad at naming odors. This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain. But is this really so? Psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen and linguist Niclas Burenhult from Lund University Sweden find new evidence for smell language in the Malay Peninsula.

The research appeared online in Cognition, 23 December 2013.

English speakers struggle to name odors. While there are words such as blue or purple to describe colors, nothing comparable exists to name odors. Even with familiar everyday odors, such as coffee, banana, and chocolate, English speakers only correctly name the smells around 50% of the time. This has led to the conclusion that smells defy words. Majid and Burenhult present new evidence that this is not true in all languages.

Jahai

Majid and Burenhult conducted research with speakers of Jahai, a hunter-gatherer language spoken in the Malay Peninsula. In Jahai there are around a dozen different words to describe different qualities of smell. For example, ltpɨt is used to describe the smell of various flowers and ripe fruit, durian, perfume, soap, Aquillaria wood, bearcat, etc. Cŋɛs, another smell word, is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings and bat caves, some species of millipede, root of wild ginger, etc. These terms refer to different odor qualities and are abstract, in the same way that blue and purple are abstract.

Odors and colors

Are Jahai speakers better at naming odors? To test this Majid and Burenhult presented Jahai speakers, and a matched set of English speakers, with the same set of colors and odors to name. Each participant was simply asked to say "What color is this?" or "What odor is this?." Responses were then compared on a number of measures, including length of response, type of response and speaker agreement in names. Majid and Burenhult found that Jahai speakers could name odors with the same conciseness and level of agreement as colors, but English speakers struggled to name odors. Jahai speakers overwhelmingly used abstract Jahai smell words to describe odors, whereas English speakers used mostly source-based descriptions (like a banana) or evaluative descriptions (that's disgusting).

Searching for words

English speakers grapple to describe smells. Their responses for odors were 5 times longer than their responses for colors. This is despite the fact that the smells used in the experiment were familiar to English speakers but not necessarily to the Jahai. For example, English speakers trying to name the smell of cinnamon said it was: spicy, sweet, bayberry, candy, Red Hot, smoky, edible, wine, potpourri, etc.

Studying other cultures

These results question the view that there is a biological limitation for our inability to name smells. Jahai speakers have an elaborate vocabulary for smells that they use with fluency. This means that the inability to name smells is a product of culture and not biology.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Radboud University Nijmegen. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Asifa Majid, Niclas Burenhult. Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Cognition, 2014; 130 (2): 266 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.004

Cite This Page:

Radboud University Nijmegen. "Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 January 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140103085248.htm>.
Radboud University Nijmegen. (2014, January 3). Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140103085248.htm
Radboud University Nijmegen. "Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140103085248.htm (accessed April 20, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) The brains of artists aren't really left-brain or right-brain, but rather have extra neural matter in visual and motor control areas. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) A recent study links apathetic feelings to a smaller brain. Researchers say the results indicate a need for apathy screening for at-risk seniors. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

AP (Apr. 16, 2014) Pushing the limits on style and self-expression is a rite of passage for teens and even younger kids. How far should schools go with their dress codes? The courts have sided with schools in an era when school safety is paramount. (April 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Harvard suggests even casual marijuana use can alter your brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins