Culture Magazine

The Comparative Vocabulary of Smell, Some Languages Have More Words Than Others

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Ed Yong, The Atlantic:
Every sense has its own “lexical field,” a vast palette of dedicated descriptive words for colors, sounds, tastes, and textures. But smell? In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller's subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.
All of our other scent descriptors are really descriptions of sources: We say that things smell like cinnamon, or roses, or teen spirit, or napalm in the morning. The other senses don't need these linguistic workarounds. We don't need to say that a banana “looks like lemon;” we can just say that it's yellow. Experts who work in perfume or wine-tasting industries may use more metaphorical terms like decadent or unctuous, but good luck explaining them to a non-expert who's not familiar with the jargon.
In contrast, "the Jahai of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between 12 and 15 dedicated smell words":
“These terms are really very salient to them,” she says. “They turn up all the time. Young children know them. They're basic vocabulary. They're not used for taste, or general ideas of edibility. They're really dedicated to smell.”
For example, ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bearcat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn. But ltpit doesn't mean popcorn—it's not a source-based term. The same word is also used for soap, flowers, and the intense-smelling durian fruit, referring to some fragrant quality that Western noses can’t parse.
Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other “bloody smells that attract tigers.”
H/t Dan Everett.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog