Smell Vocabulary: What's in a Name?

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Can You Name That Smell? Probably Not…

If you put a glass of milk, Jasmine flowers and a cotton ball in front of an English speaking audience and ask them what those objects all have in common, the majority will point out that the objects share the same “white” color. If you put bat droppings, petrol and the leaf of ginger root in front of that same audience asking the same question, you’ll find them stumbling to identify the common ground.

Interestingly, if you conduct this survey with speakers of Jahai, a language found in Malaysia, they would confidently answer that objects in the latter sequence emit a scent they call “Cŋεs.” The closest translation we have for that word in English is a stinging smell.

When it comes to colors, the English language has the capacity to name and identify a vast world of pigments like Burnt Sienna, Fuchsia, Azure, or Eggshell. When it comes to aroma, however, there seems to be a void in the English vocabulary. Some even argue that there are only THREE English words for scent: Fragrant, Aromatic, and Pungent. All other descriptors are Similes (it smells like fresh laundry or smoke-y), Tastes (it smells sour or sweet), Textures (it smells crisp or round), and even Color (it smells bright or rich). None of these descriptions truly identify a scent; at best, they merely show comparisons to our other senses. 

Arguments over how deeply language influences human thought have surged since the 1930s, when linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf first stated the hypothesis that:

"Humans can only think about concepts we can name."

This debate gained more traction 2014 when researchers Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Niclas Burenhul of Lund University in Sweden conducted a study comparing the performances of Jahai speakers and English speakers on two different tasks: color-naming and scent-naming. Each individual was asked to identify the color and smells of 80 differently colored chips and 80 different scratch-‘n’-sniff cards.

The results showed that while English speakers had no trouble identifying colors, they drastically underperformed in scent recognition. Even when sniffing familiar everyday scents, like coffee, peanut butter or chocolate, they could only identify about half of them and their descriptions tended to be long, rambling and inexact.

Jahai speakers, on the other hand, were easily and pointedly able to isolate basic smell properties within a range of objects, finding them just as codable as colors. For instance, they agreed that smell of cinnamon should be described as Cŋəs, which is the same word they used when smelling garlic, chocolate, onion, coffee, or coconut. To the best we can determine, that translates to something that has a tasty and edible smell, like cooked food or sweets. 

While the English lexicon may not be expansive enough to define certain unique scents, we've found that this may actually strengthen the bonds between scent, emotion and memory. For better or worse, English speakers have to rely on the integration of external and internal stimuli that surround the experience of a single smell. Almost by default, all senses are "tuned in" and scents are connected by their definition of personal and emotional experiences. 

As a flavor and fragrance company, Alice & the Magician was built in part to connect consumers with the rich magic of incorporating and saturating all of the senses in a single whiff of aroma. There is no need to universally and verbally define that experience. 

For example, Autumn Bonfire Mist may smell to you like the end of summer's burn pile in the back yard, collecting sticks from the wood's edge to hurl into an enormous fire. To A&M, it smells like New England cleaning out their chimneys in the late fall when the leaves are starting to turn and the countryside is preparing for the first frost of winter. The beauty is that every answer in these scent memories is authentic.