the language of smell

The human sense of smell is perhaps our most powerful. Research has shown that we can distinguish between a trillion different odours, and maybe many more. Yet our languages tend to have only a limited palette of words with which to describe what we smell.

Historically olfaction has been treated as the least of the senses, scientific research into the sense of smell has lagged behind the others. Interestingly the humanities have also ignored odours. Poetry, novels, and even philosophy tend to say little or nothing about the fragrances which fill our lives. Everyone “knows” that the human sense of smell is far weaker than that of our animal relations. Having this fallacious idea drummed into us from childhood it is no wonder we neglect to think about smell. And what we do not think about does not require a name.

You might wonder whether it matters that we have few words that we associate with smells. Surely a smell is a smell? When it comes to the senses how we talk can profoundly change our thinking. If I held up a dark blue card and a light blue card and asked an English speaker what colour they were most likely I would get the response “blue.” To a Russian speaker however they would see two different colours because Russian makes a distinction between light blue (“Goluboy”) and dark blue (“Siniy”). Without a word to hang a thought on we may miss fine differences.

Surely a smell is a smell?

With our other senses we tend to name certain aspects of how we experience them. This allows for a closer definition in our minds. Sounds have certain frequencies, pitches, intensities and all can be used to conjure up a certain sound in our imagination. A colour can be described scientifically as a wavelength of light, or with one of the names our language gives it. With smell we are left lamely grasping for comparisons. “This smells like…” Imagine you had to describe a delicate lily flower as “looking like a cloud” or the tender warmth of the sun on your skin as “feeling like being near an oven.” The sense of smell is the only one to be so slighted by our language. Making it rely on other things for its references is beneath smell’s dignity.

Language exists to communicate and comparisons are a terrible way to share our experiences. If the person we are describing a smell to has never experienced the ending of our simile then they have no idea what we are talking about. How do we describe something that smells like nutmeg to a person who has never smelled nutmeg? The terminological poverty in English with regards to fragrances is what leads wine tasters attempting to express the bouquet of a bottle to such comical expressions as “angular,” “refined,” or “steely.”

It is not just our ability to communicate smells that is limited by language but our own ability to understand and recognise scents. Speakers of Jahai, a language found in parts of Malaysia, have been shown to be far better at identifying smells than speakers of Western languages. In Jahai they have a range of abstract words for smells that do not rely on comparisons. For example the word “crŋir” would be used for things that have been roasted. Things that smell “pʔih” have a raw and bloody aroma, but are not to be confused with things that are “plʔeŋ” – they have the sort of fleshy smell which attracts tigers. None of these words could be used about any other sense, they belong solely to the world of smell.

How did the Jahai develop this lexical array to deal with their olfactory universe? It seems that living in a humid and aromatic jungle has given them the experience needed to understand what their noses are telling them. Speakers of Maniq in Thailand’s fragrant jungles are just as talented as the Jahai at recognising smells and their language is similarly rich in words for those smells. A world full of smells requires a fully fleshed out language to describe it.

Asifa Majid, one of the researchers who have worked with Jahai and Maniq speaking tribes, suggests that their abilities come from the general importance of smell in their cultures. Children learn the wide vocabulary of odours early and this may help to shape their developing brain. Her work has helped to change scientific understanding of smell differentiation in the brain. Many had thought that smells were beyond words but as Majid has said “Odours are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.”

It is not just our ability to communicate smells that is limited by language but our own ability to understand and recognise scents

People who speak other languages but who work with their nose, perfumers and wine tasters for instance, are just as able to distinguish odours as the naturally linguistically endowed Jahai or Maniq speakers. For the rest of us the tonally flat world we inhabit has let us down. The Western World is awash with perfumes and deodorants and we have banished unpleasant, but thought provoking, odours from our sensory life. Just as muscles atrophy with lack of use so does the nose.

It is possible to retrain our sense of smell and improve it however. Unlike with a muscle being exercised the nose itself does not become enhanced. When you train your sense of smell it is your brain that is being rewired. A smell that is repeatedly experienced is more quickly recognised on subsequent exposure. The detection of molecules in the nose that underpins our sense of smell fires the neurons in the brain and creates connections to memory. The next time we meet that odour our brain can place it much more rapidly. Practice and awareness is the key to a good nose.

To become better at smelling you must in some ways create your own language. Perfumers will sniff thousands of unique scents as they pass through their career. In their brains these sensory experiences are not filed under broad and ambiguous terms like “flowery” or “spicy.” Each experience is remembered as itself alone for future reference. They are creating a wordless dictionary they can consult at will.

That may seem like a feat beyond what most people can achieve. But everyone can improve their relationship with their senses, and gain a better understanding of the world. When you learn to paint you must give up the preconceptions that language imposes on vision. Human flesh is not white or black, it is shades and tones that must be mixed. The painter learns to understand what they have always seen but not appreciated. The same is true with smells.

Those looking to train their noses must therefore abandon the immediate response to a smell. Do not allow your brain to make lazy connections. A perfume does not smell “like” something else. It is its own smell. The more you begin to create your own sensory vocabulary the richer the world around you will become.

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