It is widely believed that people are bad at naming odors. This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain. But is this really so? Psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen and linguist Niclas Burenhult from Lund University Sweden find new evidence for smell language in the Malay Peninsula
English speakers struggle to name odors. While there are words such as blue or purple to describe colors, nothing comparable exists to name odors. Even with familiar everyday odors, such as coffee, banana, and chocolate, English speakers only correctly name the smells around 50% of the time. This has led to the conclusion that smells defy words
Majid and Burenhult conducted research with speakers of Jahai, a hunter-gatherer language spoken in the Malay Peninsula. In Jahai there are around a dozen different words to describe different qualities of smell. For example, ltpɨt is used to describe the smell of various flowers and ripe fruit, durian, perfume, soap, Aquillaria wood, bearcat, etc. Cŋɛs, another smell word, is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings and bat caves, some species of millipede, root of wild ginger, etc. These terms refer to different odor qualities and are abstract, in the same way that blue and purple are abstract.
English speakers grapple to describe smells. Their responses for odors were 5 times longer than their responses for colors. This is despite the fact that the smells used in the experiment were familiar to English speakers but not necessarily to the Jahai. For example, English speakers trying to name the smell of cinnamon said it was: spicy, sweet, bayberry, candy, Red Hot, smoky, edible, wine, potpourri, etc.
These results question the view that there is a biological limitation for our inability to name smells. Jahai speakers have an elaborate vocabulary for smells that they use with fluency. This means that the inability to name smells is a product of culture and not biology.
I could just as easily imagine the sentence “English speakers trying to name the smell of cinnamon said it was: spicy, sweet, bayberry, candy, Red Hot, smoky, edible, wine, potpourri, etc.” transformed to “English speakers trying to describe their pain said it was burning, stabbing, aching, grinding, tearing, shooting, gnawing etc.”
We might use different words to describe a smell, but we can share that experience – “here, smell this”. When it comes to pain, language is really all we have when we try to share our experience of it. Would it help to be able to say to another human being “hey, smell my pain”?
Language is such a powerful output for a human in trouble, and like any other bodily output it can be altered by the experience of pain, become stuck, become impoverished.
Equally, language can act to provide evidence for greater safety, with neuroscience powered education, or danger, with scary sounding diagnoses and fear provoking explanations of injury or pathology (real or imagined).
Language and how we use it is discussed in detail during noigroup courses and David Butler loves to recount the story of a client that once shared with him a very apt proverb; “Reckless words pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing”
The noigroup faculty is teaching the very finest Explain Pain and Graded Motor Imagery courses all around the globe over the next 12 months, from Doorn in the Netherlands to Derby in the UK.
Meanwhile, Brendan Haslam will be taking the brand new Pain, Plasticity and Rehabilitation course to Portland in January and David Butler will be touring the US in February. Checkout the noigroup courses page for dates, locations and all other details.