Previous research has shown the hunter-gatherer Jahai are much better at naming odors than Westerners. They even have a more elaborate lexicon for it. New research by language scientist Asifa Majid of Radboud University shows that despite these linguistic differences, the Jahai and Dutch find the same odors pleasant and unpleasant.Scholars have for centuries pointed out that smell is impossible to put into words. Dutch, like English, seems to support this view. Perhaps the only really clear example of a smell word in Dutch is "muf." The Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, appear to be special in that they have developed an exquisite lexicon of words for smell, like other hunter-gatherers. Earlier work of Majid and colleagues already showed that hunter-gatherers seem to be especially good at talking about smell.In a new study, the researchers tested 30 Jahai speakers and 30 Dutch speakers and asked them to name odors. At the same time they also videoed their faces so they could measure their facial expressions to the different odors after the experiment. The researchers replicated the finding that Jahai speakers use special odor words to talk about smells (e.g., cŋεs used to refer to stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke, and various insects and plants, plʔeŋ used for bloody, fishy, meaty sorts of smells), while Dutch speakers referred to concrete sources (e.g., 'if you ride along or stand behind a garbage truck, but not right on top of it').
Asifa Majid et al. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139