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Revisiting the limits of language

According to a widespread view, languages cannot easily encode odors. Maniq, a language from Thailand studied by Ewelina Wnuk from MPI and Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen, challenges this claim. In their article published in Cognition, 2014, they provide the most comprehensive study of an odor lexicon to date. This evidence suggests that what has long been thought of as a limitation of the human language faculty actually isn’t one.
Revisiting the limits of language

In many languages, such as English, there is no straightforward way to talk about smell. For want of dedicated odor terminology similar to that available for color, English speakers are often forced to use odor-sources and metaphors in their descriptions of olfactory sensations. This has long been considered a universal feature of all languages, but there is accumulating evidence that languages with odor lexicons actually do exist. Maniq (pronounced as maniʔ), spoken by a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers in southern Thailand, is one such language. The study by Wnuk and Majid is an in-depth investigation of the semantics of an odor lexicon using multiple methods.

What’s in an odor term?

It is extremely difficult to provide translations for Maniq odor terms since familiar Western languages lack direct equivalents. In an attempt to understand what meaning the Maniq terms carry, Maniq speakers were asked to list objects for each smell term. For instance, the term lspəs is applicable to the smell of wild tubers, bearcats, newly built shelters, clean and dry clothes, and more. The term palɛŋ is most often associated with the odor of blood and raw meat. Importantly, the Maniq smell terms are not all-purpose words, but relate specifically to smell. What is more, they are abstract since they are not tied to single source-objects.

Relations between odor terms

How do the Maniq smell terms relate to each other? And can their internal relations tell us something about our olfactory perception? These questions were answered by collecting speakers’ similarity judgments of odor terms and analyzing them using different statistical models. They found that the Maniq smell lexicon is optimally modelled in two dimensions. When compared to speakers’ ratings of odor terms on a set of olfaction-relevant parameters, these dimensions were best characterised as pleasantness and dangerousness. These results are interesting not only from the point of view of language, but they also potentially provide insights into olfactory perception. Assuming that odor language mirrors odor perception, as has been shown for other domains, the structure of the Maniq odor lexicon may be treated as evidence supporting low-dimensional theories of odor perception.

Odor culture

The meanings of Maniq odor terms are rich and complex since they are intertwined with cultural knowledge. Odor is central in the life of the Maniq, who believe it has major influence on their safety and well-being. This is manifested in indigenous practices, such as wearing necklaces with fragrant plants for protection against disease, or in taboos prohibiting mixing of certain smells.
Together, the elaboration found within Maniq language and culture refute claims regarding the paucity of olfactory terms in languages and the insignificance of smell for humans.

Read the paper online here >>

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