Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages

The sanitary and mechanical age we are now entering makes up for the mercy it grants to our sense of smell by the ferocity with which it assails our sense of hearing. – Havelock Ellis

How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)
How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 9 March 2014. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)

My wife and I disagree about how one should judge whether milk has gone bad or is still fresh enough to drink. She consults the date on the carton. I smell it.

My aroma-based strategy is part of my well-developed theory that milk, even when it goes “off,” simply becomes a different dairy product, maybe not quite so pleasant to drink, but perfectly serviceable in other functions such as making pancakes. My father taught me this, or at least I blame him — he grew up on a farm in Iowa — but I also recall reading with great satisfaction about the Nuer and Dinka, and how a range of fermented milk products were essential to their diet. But that’s a story for a different day…

The key is that my wife and I disagree fundamentally about the value of olfaction in judging milk even though she has a quite remarkable sense of smell. She often stumps me by quizzing me about which flowering shrubs are in bloom from their aroma. She can always tell. Like many people in the US and Australia, and elsewhere in the West, we’re ambivalent about the value of the sense of smell, using it only quite narrowly for specific tasks.

Throughout Western philosophy and psychology runs a conviction that smell is an imperfect and inexact sense. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, for example, wrote that the sense was “of extremely slight service” to humans; philosopher Immanuel Kant that it was the “most dispensable” of our senses. As Ewelina Wnuk and Asifa Majid of the Max Plank Institute summarize, a range of Western thinkers from Condillac to Pinker argue that aroma offers humans little of value, that the sense is vestigial, rudimentary, and under-developed (see Wnuk and Majid 2014: 125).

In fact, the human sense of smell is far more acute than we might realize, and new linguistic research emerging from a cluster of groups in southeast Asia suggests that our inability to smell might be a cultural problem, not an invariant fact of human nature. Our language hampers our ability to perceive aroma.

Continue reading “Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages”