Psycholinguistic variables matter in odor naming

Huisman, J. L. A., & Majid, A. (2018). Psycholinguistic variables matter in odor naming. Memory & Cognition, 46, 577-588. doi:10.3758/s13421-017-0785-1.
People from Western societies generally find it difficult to name odors. In trying to explain this, the olfactory literature has proposed several theories that focus heavily on properties of the odor itself but rarely discuss properties of the label used to describe it. However, recent studies show speakers of languages with dedicated smell lexicons can name odors with relative ease. Has the role of the lexicon been overlooked in the olfactory literature? Word production studies show properties of the label, such as word frequency and semantic context, influence naming; but this field of research focuses heavily on the visual domain. The current study combines methods from both fields to investigate word production for olfaction in two experiments. In the first experiment, participants named odors whose veridical labels were either high-frequency or low-frequency words in Dutch, and we found that odors with high-frequency labels were named correctly more often. In the second experiment, edibility was used for manipulating semantic context in search of a semantic interference effect, presenting the odors in blocks of edible and inedible odor source objects to half of the participants. While no evidence was found for a semantic interference effect, an effect of word frequency was again present. Our results demonstrate psycholinguistic variables—such as word frequency—are relevant for olfactory naming, and may, in part, explain why it is difficult to name odors in certain languages. Olfactory researchers cannot afford to ignore properties of an odor’s label.
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