The Language With A Word For Every Smell

By Nolan Moore on Tuesday, January 21, 2014
“A good fragrance is really a powerful cocktail of memories and emotion.” —Jeffrey Stepakoff, The Orchard: A Novel

In A Nutshell

While most people can describe colors without a problem, it’s a different story when it comes to smells. The Jahai people, on the other hand, use very specific words that describe every aroma in the rainforest. From flowers to animals, if it has a scent, the Jahai have a word for it.

The Whole Bushel

Can you describe the smell of an orange? How about a rose? If you’re like most people, you probably have trouble describing the way things smell. While we can easily label colors (blue, green, aquamarine), aromas are far more difficult. For example, if you ask a bunch of English speakers to describe the scent of cinnamon, you’ll get a wide variety of answers ranging from “candy” to “edible” to “potpourri.” Most cultures don’t have names that convey the essence of smells, and for the longest time, scientists actually thought it was impossible to create them.

That’s when researchers interviewed members of the Jahai tribe, a group of people who live near the border of Malaysia and Thailand. The Jahai are nomads who have an amazing sense of smell, probably thanks to highly developed sense receptors that would be the envy of any sommelier. In addition to their awesome olfactory bulbs, researchers also learned the Jahai use extremely precise words to describe pretty much every fragrance imaginable. For example, if you gave a member of the Jahai tribe a whiff of cinnamon, he or she would describe it as “cŋəs” (“cng-oos”) a word that’s also used for garlic, onions, coffee, chocolate, and coconuts.

The Jahai need words like these because their sense of smell is crucial to their way of life. For example, when you live in the rainforest, it’s crucial to know the difference between all those plants. Which ones are edible, and which ones aren’t? If you can’t tell the difference with your eyes, that’s when your nose comes in handy. It’s also pretty useful to know which scents will attract predators because you generally want to avoid smelling like something’s dinner. By the way, “plʔεŋ” (“pla-ehng”) is the word that means the “bloody smell that attracts tigers.” It also applies to the blood of squirrels and crushed head lice. That’s pretty darn specific.

While an English speaker might say day-old food smells “bad” or “rank” or “stinky”—words which can describe any number of things—the Jahai say “pʔus” (“pa-oos”) which also describes old huts and cabbage. They have a weird word that captures the bouquet of smoke, bat droppings, and millipedes, and they have another that expresses the delightful odor of raw meat and raw fish. Compare that to English speakers who come up with crazy phrases like “that smells like the ocean” or “that smells like garbage” or even “that smells awful.” And are you still trying to describe an orange or a rose? Well, the word “tpɨt” (“t-piwt”) sums up the smell of ripe fruits and some flowers as well as soap and, believe it or not, binturongs (weird, bearcat-like creatures that live in trees). The Jahai language is so specific it’s beautiful.

Show Me The Proof

PopSci: An Indigenous Malaysian Language Describes Smells As Precisely As English Describes Colors
Science: Can You Name That Smell?
ScienceDaily: Odors Expressible in Language, as Long as You Speak Right Language