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Revisiting the limits of language: The odor lexicon of Maniq

Wnuk, E., & Majid, A. (2014). Revisiting the limits of language: The odor lexicon of Maniq. Cognition, 131, 125-138. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.12.008.
It is widely believed that human languages cannot encode odors. While this is true for English, and other related languages, data from some non-Western languages challenge this view. Maniq, a language spoken by a small population of nomadic hunter–gatherers in southern Thailand, is such a language. It has a lexicon of over a dozen terms dedicated to smell. We examined the semantics of these smell terms in 3 experiments (exemplar listing, similarity judgment and off-line rating). The exemplar listing task confirmed that Maniq smell terms have complex meanings encoding smell qualities. Analyses of the similarity data revealed that the odor lexicon is coherently structured by two dimensions. The underlying dimensions are pleasantness and dangerousness, as verified by the off-line rating study. Ethnographic data illustrate that smell terms have detailed semantics tapping into broader cultural constructs. Contrary to the widespread view that languages cannot encode odors, the Maniq data show odor can be a coherent semantic domain, thus shedding new light on the limits of language.
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