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Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners

Date:
June 18, 2018
Source:
Radboud University Nijmegen
Summary:
Previous research has shown the hunter-gatherer Jahai are much better at naming odors than Westerners. They even have a more elaborate lexicon for it. New research by language scientists show that despite these linguistic differences, the Jahai and Dutch find the same odors pleasant and unpleasant.
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Previous research has shown the hunter-gatherer Jahai are much better at naming odors than Westerners. They even have a more elaborate lexicon for it. New research by Asifa Majid of Radboud University shows that despite these linguistic differences, the Jahai and Dutch find the same odors pleasant and unpleasant.

Scholars have for centuries pointed out that smell is impossible to put into words. Dutch, like English, seems to support this view. Perhaps the only really clear example of a smell word in Dutch is "muf." The Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, appear to be special in that they have developed an exquisite lexicon of words for smell, like other hunter-gatherers. Earlier work of Majid and colleagues already showed that hunter-gatherers seem to be especially good at talking about smell.

Special odor words

In a new study, the researchers tested 30 Jahai speakers and 30 Dutch speakers and asked them to name odors. At the same time they also videoed their faces so they could measure their facial expressions to the different odors after the experiment. The researchers replicated the finding that Jahai speakers use special odor words to talk about smells (e.g., c??s used to refer to stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke, and various insects and plants, pl?e? used for bloody, fishy, meaty sorts of smells), while Dutch speakers referred to concrete sources (e.g., bloemen 'flowers', als je d'r langsfietst of achter de vuilniswagen staat niet d'r bovenop 'if you ride along or stand behind a garbage truck, but not right on top of it').

Faster responses

In comparison to the Dutch, Jahai speakers also agree more with each other in how to describe odors, they give shorter responses, and also response faster (Jahai 2 seconds; Dutch 13 seconds). The Dutch seem to struggle to come up with a way to describe smells because they do not have dedicated vocabulary. On the other hand, the rapid responses of the Jahai show that their words come to mind easily.

Despite these differences in language use, both Jahai and Dutch responded emotionally in the same way to smells: they found the same sorts of odors disgusting (as reflected in their faces by a nose wrinkle and lowered brow). This suggests that although culture shapes language, odors are perceived in the same way across the globe in diverse cultures.


Story Source:

Materials provided by Radboud University Nijmegen. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Asifa Majid, Niclas Burenhult, Marcus Stensmyr, Josje de Valk, Bill S. Hansson. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2018; 373 (1752): 20170139 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139

Cite This Page:

Radboud University Nijmegen. "Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 June 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180618113019.htm>.
Radboud University Nijmegen. (2018, June 18). Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 16, 2024 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180618113019.htm
Radboud University Nijmegen. "Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180618113019.htm (accessed July 16, 2024).

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