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Human olfaction at the intersection of language, culture and biology

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Abstract: Language seems to be better at expressing some notions (e.g., geometric shapes), but poor at others (e.g., describing an individuals’ face). What does this differential expressibility tell us about the evolution of language? One possibility is that lack of expressibility shows a domain is not of importance for human cognition. This has certainly been claimed of olfaction. Under experimental conditions—where people can only smell, but not see the source of an odor—individuals struggle to name their perceptual experience. This difficulty is attributed to the relative unimportance of olfaction. Smell is claimed to have little value across cultures, and olfactory abstraction is said to be impossible. So are smells truly ineffable? How difficult is it to describe an odour in comparison to a colour, shape, or sound? Recent crosscultural investigation shows that the problems of odor naming are not universal. The hunter-gatherer Jahai who reside in the tropical rainforests of the Malay Peninsula have around a dozen terms to refer to different ty pes of odor qualities, and are able to talk about smells with the same ease as colors (Majid & Burenhult, 2014). The Jahai are not the only ones to have an elaborate lexicon for smell. This observation raises new questions about what factors might give rise to olfactory talk. Subsistence (e.g., being a hunter-gatherer), domain-specific practices (e.g., wine-tasting), as well as ecology shape olfactory language, and its use. Together this work points to the importance culture, not just biology, for understanding the limits and possibilities of human communication.

Bio: Asifa Majid is Professor of Language, communication, and cultural cognition at the Department of Psychology, University of York. She investigates the nature of categories and concepts in language, in non-linguistic perception and cognition, and the relationship between them. Majid has been awarded various prizes and awards (e.g. the Ammodo KNAW Award, Radboud Science Award), and received a NWO VICI grant (€1.5 million) to study olfactory language and cognition across diverse cultures.

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