Conversations I Wish I Had

The Vocabulary of Smell in Southeastern Asia

What can you do with anthropology?

Western culture generally ranks the sense of smell as the least important of the traditional 5 senses. Often times, westerners can’t even identify the smell of some foods they regularly consumed. Most people will try to rationalize this by saying that the sense has degenerated with evolution. But is our poor recognition of scents completely because of biology?

Firstly, humanity’s sense of smell may not be as dulled as we presume. We can sniff out some mercaptan compounds at lower levels than we detect light and sound. Mother and child can also pick out the scent of each other easily. Then, if our noses aren’t totally obsolete, why can’t most people describe smell? The answer may lie in our language.

Maniq and Jahai, two languages spoken in Thailand and on the Malay Peninsula respectively, reflect their cultures’ deep appreciation of the olfactory experience. They have as many as 15 terms…

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This entry was posted on December 6, 2014 by .
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