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Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures

  • Asifa Majid
  • Niclas Burenhult
  • Marcus Stensmyr
  • Josje de Valk
  • Bill S. Hansson
Publishing year: 2018-06-18
Language: English
Publication/Series: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume: 373
Issue: 1752
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Royal Society

Abstract english

Olfaction presents a particularly interesting arena to explore abstraction in language. Like other abstract domains, such as time, odours can be difficult to conceptualize. An odour cannot be seen or held, it can be difficult to locate in space, and for most people odours are difficult to verbalize. On the other hand, odours give rise to primary sensory experiences. Every time we inhale we are using olfaction to make sense of our environment. We present new experimental data from 30 Jahai huntergatherers from the Malay Peninsula and 30 matched Dutch participants from the Netherlands in an odour naming experiment. Participants smelled monomolecular odorants and named odours while reaction times, odour descriptors, and facial expressions were measured. We show that while Dutch speakers relied on concrete descriptors, i.e. they referred to odour sources (e.g. smells like lemon), the Jahai used abstract vocabulary to name the same odours (e.g. musty). Despite this differential linguistic categorization, analysis of facial expressions showed that the two groups, nevertheless, had the same initial emotional reactions to odours. Critically, these cross-linguistic data present a challenge for how to think about abstraction in language.


  • General Language Studies and Linguistics
  • olfaction
  • culture
  • language
  • abstract
  • Jahai
  • Dutch


  • Language as key to perceptual diversity: an interdisciplinary approach to the senses
  • ISSN: 0800-4622
Marcus Stensmyr
E-mail: marcus [dot] stensmyr [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

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Functional zoology

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Animal Physiology


Drosophila Olfactory Neuroecology

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