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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). But are there ineffable concepts, i.e., things that are difficult or impossible to put into words? One proposal for ineffability is odor. Smell is said to be “the lowest, the most animal of the senses” (McKenzie 1923), and is claimed by many to have little value across cultures (e.g., Buchan 1812; Gardner 1993; Stoddart 1990). The language for smell is claimed to be similarly impoverished. McKenzie (1923) declared: “smell is speechless”, and Henning (1916) claimed “olfactory abstraction is 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 this generalization is, in fact, not true. The hunter-gatherer Jahai who reside in the tropical rainforests of the Malay Peninsula have around a dozen terms to refer to different types 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. In this presentation, I review recent work that shows that subsistence (e.g., being a hunter-gatherer; Majid & Kruspe, 2018), domain-specific practices (e.g., wine-tasting; Croijmans & Majid, 2016), as well as ecology (O’Meara, Smythe Kung, & Majid, under review) shape olfactory language, and its use. Together this work points to the importance of marrying studies of the lexicon to those of culture and communication.

Bio: Asifa Majid is Professor of Language, communication, and cultural cognition at the Centre of Language Studies and Affiliated researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. 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 2015 for the Humanities, Radboud Science Award 2015) and received a NWO VICI grant (€1.5 million) to study olfactory language and cognition across diverse cultures. Her work has been recognised outside the scientific community too. She was named one of The Libertine 100 because “Her innovative research opens up a whole new frontier of language and ‘smell vocabulary’.”

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