It’s Pretty Hard to Put a Smell Into Words

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If someone asked you to describe the scent of, for example, cinnamon, how would you do it? After “spicy,” which is in itself not all that precise, you might quickly run out of words. As the linguist Asifa Majid of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics told New Scientist, it’s pretty difficult for English speakers to put smells into words, something she found when she recently tested a group of English speaker against a group of Jahai speakers, the latter made up of hunter-gatherers living on the Malay peninsula. 

When the Jahai speakers were asked to describe certain smells, they tended to use the same words, and they arrived quickly at their answers. English speakers, in comparison, hemmed and hawed, and when they did answer, the language they used was all over the place. When she asked each group to describe the smell of cinnamon, for example, “one participant went on and on, like, ‘I don’t know how to say it’ and ‘I can’t get the word’ and ‘like that chewing gum smell’ and finally ‘Big Red gum,’” Majid told New Scientist. “It was hard for most English speakers to identify even the common smell of cinnamon.” 

Part of this difference could be explained by the environment: The Jahai speakers live in the scent-filled rainforest, for example. But the differences are likely also explained by cultural norms — in the Western world, smells are most often something to get rid of rather than something to pay close attention to. (Think, for example, of the way we use the adjective smelly.) And yet psychological research suggests that scent may have a more direct link to our emotions in a way that the other senses do not, which means that, by largely ignoring the sense, we may be glossing over one of the major ways we perceive the world around us. At any rate, it would be nice to have the language to describe the mysterious smells of your own home.