English speakers usually have specific terms to use for a variety of things. For example, speakers of English can easily name colors. However, they struggle to use a specific term for odors and smells. The most they can come up with is to have a long phrase to describe the smell, but not a single word.
But the research of Dutch linguists proves that there are cultures where the language can be precise in something that many people take for granted. They are the Jahai speakers who live in Taman Negeri Diraja Belum, which is located in Perak, Malaysia.
Cultural, not biological issue
It has long been assumed that humans are not adept at describing smells and odors, but a new study says otherwise. The problem, researchers determined is not biological but rather cultural.
When you eat something, you generally have a good idea of what the food would taste like by reading the descriptions from a menu. But if you look at a catalog of perfumes and their descriptions, particularly if the descriptions contain complex and compound words like “smoky vanilla,” “warm amber” or “sensual suede,” you might find it difficult to identify the particular scent.
It is not the same when you say that something is blue, red, green, orange or even baby pink or sky blue, or chartreuse or golden yellow.
Discovery through linguistic study
The Dutch linguists who conducted the study, Niclas Burenhult from Sweden’s Lund University and Asifa Majid for the Radboud University, detailed their findings in their paper that was published in the Cognition journal.
Their report discussed the assumption of many Western researchers that odors are universally indefinable. But they also indicated that it was a wrong assumption because the researchers did not search beyond their neighborhoods.
In the experiments they conducted, the Jahai speakers were able to describe the smells consistently in a manner that ordinary people who speak English cannot do. Their terms for smells may be essential for their survival as they work mainly as hunters.
According to the 21st edition of Ethnologue, there are still about 1,250 people who speak Jahai (or Jehai), an indigenous language in Malaysia. The threatened language is pronounced as ”ya-hai.” It is an aboriginal Mon-Khmer language. The number of speakers is currently increasing. The language is mainly an oral language. Its vocabulary includes several words, actually abstract concepts that describe odors.
When English speakers describe odors, they often associate it with other things, for example, ”smells like an apple,” ”rose-like scent,” ”smells like rotten fruit” and so on.
In Jahai, smells are described as such:
- plʔεŋ – the term they use for that ”bloody smell that attracts tigers,” which could be the smell of head lice that have been crushed or the smell of squirrel’s blood.
- pʔih – the term used when describing the smell of raw meat, raw fish and blood.
- pʔus – the term the Jahai speakers use to describe a musty smell, like the smell of stale food, mushrooms and old living spaces.
- cŋεs – the term they use for wild mango, wild ginger roots, bat caves, droppings of bats, smoke and petrol. They also use the term to indicate the smell of certain millipede species.
- tpɨt –the Jahai term for the smell of some ripe fruits and specific flowers. It can be used to describe the smell of bear cats, durian, Aquilaria wood (related to Agarwood and a source of resin used in perfumes and incense), soap and perfume.
Conduct of research
The researchers realized that at least in this indigenous language, the precise terms for specific smells are available. Their series of experiments proved the precision of the Jahai language when it comes to the concepts of smell.
The researchers used 10 Jahai people who are native speakers of the language and are between 20 and 60 years of age. They also have a group of native speakers of English as their counterpart. All of them sniffed various samples of smells included in the survey called “The Brief Smell Identification Test” using cards that participants scratch to sniff the scent. This smell test has been used since the early part of the 1980s for scent sensitivity testing. Each participant was asked to name the scent precisely. They were also asked to do a color-naming test.
The participants were asked to describe 12 odors – onion, soap, pineapple, paint thinner, gasoline, banana, rose, smoke, chocolate, turpentine, lemon and cinnamon.
The research participants answered in their own language. What became clear was that the native speakers of Jahai were able to describe odors and colors in their own language precisely. The English speakers fared better when naming the colors but did not have the aptitude to describe the odors. They were able to use broad terms for the scents, such as “woodsy,” “smoky” or “sweet.”
The Dutch linguists conducting the research also noted that the English speakers used several words to describe the smells, an indication that they found it difficult to put the descriptions into precise words.
All of the Jahai speakers agreed that cinnamon is cŋəs (cheng-us), the same term they use for the smell of coconut, chocolate, onion, garlic and coffee. The researchers noted that the Jahai speakers have a special ability to identify the common property of the scent in all the food items they mentioned.
Describing the smells precisely is vital to the life of the Jahai natives. In many of the villages, they live by hunting or foraging. Thus it is important to them choose the animals they bring home for their safety. They do not want to have animals whose scents attract tigers, which could do them harm. They may be foragers but the Jahai people are also familiar with modern things.
Why specific names for odors matter to the Jahai people
Linguists Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir introduced a controversial hypothesis in the early 1930s stating that a person’s native language affects the way the person thinks. They posit that people are only able to think about the concepts that they are able to name. Thirty years later the hypothesis was out of favor, yet several researchers found that the hypothesis is plausible. For example, the Himba tribe of Africa can identify more colors than English speakers. There was also study that found out that native speakers of Russian can distinguish more shades of blue. It means that the languages of these cultures have more words they can use to identify the subtlest of colors.
The Jahai people are nomadic and they live in the rainforests in the mountains of the Malay Peninsula located along the border between Thailand and Malaysia. A heightened sense of smell is critical to them to identify many things. The study by the Dutch linguists also point out the fact that they have ability to isolate the basic properties of odors.
They have unique terms for the odors, whereas the English speakers tend to use the smell’s source to describe a particular scent. For example, when describing a lemon, they said that the smell was ”lemony.”
For the Jahai, identifying odors is very important, according to Douglas Medin, a learning and cognition expert in indigenous cultures and a psychologist from the Northwestern University in Illinois. He was not involved in the project of the Dutch linguists but he has some explanations regarding the importance of smells to the Jahai.
He said that in the thickness of the rainforests, it would be very difficult to differentiate between tree trunks. However, after a heavy rain, different smells emanate from the surroundings so a person who has learned to identify smells would be able to differentiate them. He added that using a specific name for a particular odor could save their lives.
Inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula speak a variety of languages. Forty-one out of the 136 living languages in Malaysia are spoken in Peninsular Malaysia. Many of these belong to the Austroasiatic language family, for which Aslian languages is one branch. The aboriginal inhabitants of the peninsula, the Orang Asli, spoke several languages, most of them now on the verge of becoming extinct. The Aslian languages are recognized by the government of Malaysia. The branch includes the following languages:
- Semaq Beri
- Mah Meri
- Jah Hut
- Cheq Wong
The Aslian language originated from the western side of the primary mountains in the Malay Peninsula and later spread into Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan. The Aslian languages are closest to the Nicobarese and Monic languages.
The Aslian languages are characterized by the inclusion of several loanwords for different linguistic communities that are no longer existent on the peninsula. Some of them have loanwords coming from Chamic and Bornean languages, indicating they speakers of these languages used to be present on this side of Malaysia.
Linguists in the past have noted that the Northern Aslian languages or the Jahaic group have several words that are not traceable to any known language family existing today.
Although it is not possible to fully explain why they are able to put names into the abstract concepts of odors, one may think that they evolved to have a different set of olfactory receptors. But that needs a different method of study.
What is more definite is that when you need translations from any Malay language into other languages, accuracy is very important, in the same way that the Jahai needs specific names for odors for their survival. Call Day Translations at 1-800-969-6853 or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for an instant quote. We are open 24/7 so you can call us anytime. Our translators, who are native speakers, are located worldwide, ready to serve you at a moment’s notice.