Making sense of our language’s lack of scents
If vocabulary reflects a culture’s interests, then we really don’t care about smells. English has multitudes of terms for how things look, and can even offer a variety of ways to see, gaze, stare, observe, gape, gawk or witness them. Smells seem to take a back seat to our other senses, with only a small handful of words that only apply to how things smell, like stinky, fragrant or musty, and even stinky gets co-opted for other purposes now and then. Otherwise, we just compare smells to their sources without getting into much more nuance than that. This isn’t surprising considering how sophisticated and primary human vision is, but it two Southeast Asian populations show that this bias may be cultural instead of physiological.
The Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand both have a wider variety of terms used exclusively to describe smells. While these vocabularies don’t necessarily rival the number of visual experiences in English, they’re enough to help shape the thoughts and experiences of their speakers. With as few as 15 words for different smells, these peoples can organize and categorize types of smells in ways that English speakers would never consider. For instance, the word itpit describes the smell of an otter-like animal called a binturong, some soap, flowers and the durian fruit. English would best approximate the smell by saying it’s “like” popcorn, but to a native speaker itpit is as elemental as saying something is red in English.
This degree of sophistication in language has shaped the Jahai and Maniq peoples’ lives to a degree. Everything from customs to cooking are influenced by the heightened degree of odor-awareness, with greater concerns over when smells from foods or people might be mixing in an unwanted way. Tests also indicate that both populations are better at identifying smells than Westerners, possibly just as a result of paying more attention to them.
Classifications from chemistry
Beyond cultural differences, these terms for smells may offer clues about chemistry as well. In the same way that potentially harmful substances are often lumped together as having bad or gross smells, pleasant smells might unintentionally be groupings of other key ingredients. Itpit, the popcorny, binturong smell, is largely used to describe flowers and plants with medicinal qualities. If a common ingredient can be found in each item, our idea of what constitutes a ‘pleasant’ smell may have originated from something as utilitarian as medicinal qualities of flowers and herbs.
Source: Why Do Most Languages Have So Few Words for Smells? by Ed Yong, The Atlantic