English Speakers Are Bad at Identifying and Describing Smells

But is this a problem with our noses, or with English?

smelling roses
What do roses smell like? Joe Penniston

What does a flower smell like? In English, we’d probably pause and say something like “it smells like...a flower.” In English, we describe smells by explaining what they smell like. Things smell like fish, or like grass, or like chocolate. And that’s only if we can describe the smells. Which we often can’t. One study asked subjects to identify 24 everyday smells, and they barely got half of the answers right. 

But is this a problem with our noses, or with English? One recent study tried to identify the culprit by comparing English speakers' smell descriptors with the words used for smell in other languages. The researchers looked at the Jahai people, a group of hunter gatherers from Malaysia and Thailand. It turns out that the Jahai (whose language is called Jahai) describe smell quite differently from us.

They have words that mean things like “to smell edible,” “to smell roasted,” “to stink,” “to be musty,” “to have a urine-like smell,” and even “to have a bloody smell which attracts tigers.” If you ask Jahai speakers and English speakers to describe scents, and then compare them, you see some interesting differences. English speakers struggled to describe the smells they were given and gave answers five times longer than those they used to describe colors. Here’s how one English speaker described cinnamon:

“I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? Ok. Big Red. Big Red gum.”

Rebecca Schwarzlose at the blog Garden of the Mind points out that this is quite different from how the Jahai performed:

Now compare that with Jahai speakers, who gave slightly shorter responses to name odors than to name colors and used abstract descriptors 99% of the time for both tasks. They were equally consistent at naming both colors and scents. And, if anything, this study probably underestimated the odor-naming consistency of the Jahai because many of the scents used in the test were unfamiliar to them.

This finding is particularly interesting because for a long time people simply assumed that humans on the whole were bad at naming smells. “Our findings show that the long-held assumption that people are bad at naming smells is not universally true,” the authors write. “Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.”