When describing how something smells, many of us fall back on using other senses to describe the odor, or we use analogies. Cookies smell sweet, for instance. But sweet is a taste. The inside of an athletic shoe smells like a wet dog, perhaps. But that’s just saying the smell reminds of you a wet dog. It’s not really giving the smell a unique description.
With colors, we tend to get very specific. We have any number of ways to describe blue — navy, powder, United Nations, baby — so if we’re talking about blue, we tend to have the vocabulary necessary to make ourselves understood without having to reference something else, or another sense.
So what accounts for our apparent inability to describe smells? Is it our language? Is it because visual acuity became more important than smell as humans evolved?
Or is it because, as a study in Current Biology contends, we’re not hunter-gatherers?
Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Nicole Kruspe from Lund University in Sweden set off to the Malay Peninsula to find out how different people described colors and smells. The researchers picked the Semaq Beri, who rely on hunting and gathering; and the Semelai, who rely on farming rice. The two groups, while they follow different lifestyles, live in relatively close proximity to one another and their languages are largely similar.
Twenty Semaq Beri people and 21 Semelai people were asked to identify 16 different smells and 80 colors. The smells were orange, leather, cinnamon, peppermint, banana, lemon, licorice, turpentine, garlic, coffee, apple, clove, pineapple, rose, anise and fish. The colors consisted of 20 different but equally spaced hues at four different degrees of brightness. Participants were asked in their native language “What smell is this?” and “What color is this?”
Majid and Kruspe tracked whether the subjects used abstract words, like “blue” or “musty” versus source-based descriptors, such as “leaf-colored” or “like a banana.” Majid and Kruspe gave each verbal answer a score: zero if the participants all gave different answers and one if participants all gave the same answer.
The Semaq Beri were four times better than the Semelai when it came to using the same word to describe a smell, while the Semelai did better at identifying colors with the same answer. However, the Semaq Beri also relied heavily on abstract words to describe color, quickly identifying shades. The Semelai were more likely to use evaluative language — nice, good, bad, etc. — when describing smells, whereas less than 1 percent of Semaq Beri responses included such language.
These findings support another study that Majid conducted with the Jahai, another hunter-gatherer culture on the Malay Peninsula that identified smells in the same precise and consistent way that the Semaq Beri did.
What’s smell got to do with it?
So what accounts for this difference in language between two sets of ethnicities that live relatively close together and have only minor differences in languages?
Majid and Kruspe suggest that smell plays a larger part in the lives of hunter-gatherers, especially hunter-gatherers who have a closer connection to the forest. The ability to differentiate smells may be the key to survival in dense rainforest. For instance, “the smell of tiger urine would be something to note,” the researchers told the Washington Post.
Smell plays a large role in Semaq Beri culture, overall. Smells are associated with health, sickness and even familial relations.
“The hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri do not think a brother and sister should sit too close together because their smells will mix,” the authors explained to the Post, “and this is considered a sort of incest.”
The Semelai, meanwhile, like many post-industrial societies, may not consider smell as much of a priority as a being able to see.
The authors suggest that these findings open up various avenues of study, including looking at how other hunter-gatherer societies handle naming colors and scents and whether they’ve retained a genetic trait that other societies no longer have.