It’s not something that we pause to think about too often, but how many words can you think of that are used to describe a smell — and a smell only, not a smell as a comparison to something else. For example, “smoky” wouldn’t count since smoky is used to describe things in relation to how close they smell to smoke. Done thinking? If you had trouble don’t worry, there are in fact only three words that are reserved to describe a scent: stinky, fragrant, and musty.
Some practical reasons for this lack of vocabulary are the fact that smell is rather hard to describe – in fact stinky and fragrant are more to do with a person’s opinion of a scent rather than the actual scent itself. Also, humans seem to have relegated smell to the back burner of the senses. Humans do not rely on scent these days all that much, and it’s not as powerful a sense as sight, which has taken over the vocabulary of description.
However, recently it has been discovered that there are two tribes that have many words for smell in their native languages, and they use them with some frequency.
The Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use many words to describe scents. One example is ltpit, which is used to describe the scent that often comes from a bearcat, a local animal. However the word is used ONLY for that scent, not for the bearcat. They don’t say the bearcat smells like a bearcat, they say it smells ltpit.
Researcher Asifa Majid has written a paper on this phenomenon after studying the languages of the two tribes in detail. She will be returning to the tribes later this year in order to determine whether or not having words for smells makes it easier for them to actually remember smells and identify different smells. She also wants to isolate chemicals from the smells that they have words for in order to determine if there is a compound that binds the scents of specific words together (two different objects could smell ltpit, for example, and she wants to find out what chemical is causing that distinct ltpit smell).
These tribes will also help researchers study the adaptive advantage that the sense of smell has endowed. We use smell to avoid dangerous things as many of them smell bad – feces, rotting food, etc. However there is still the question of why we like certain smells such as perfumes.
Overall it’s a very interesting new avenue into linguistic anthropology that gives us a window into how certain languages can have more words to describe certain things with more detail, and it’s interesting to see whether or not this translates into actual perceptual differences from those who speak another language that lacks those specific words.