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Study Reveals Odors Are Expressible in Language

Posted: January 6, 2014

People believe the experience of a smell is impossible to put into words, although odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language, according to psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen and linguist Niclas Burenhult from Lund University Sweden. 

Majid and Burenhult's recent study published in scientific journal Cognition, noted that studies to date have focused on participants from urbanized Western societies.

"Cross-cultural research suggests that there may be other cultures where odors play a larger role," the authors wrote. "The Jahai of the Malay Peninsula are one such group. We tested whether Jahai speakers could name smells as easily as colors in comparison to a matched English group. Using a free naming task we show on three different measures that Jahai speakers find it as easy to name odors as colors, whereas English speakers struggle with odor naming. Our findings show that the long-held assumption that people are bad at naming smells is not universally true. Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language."

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