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  1. #1

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    Default Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Apparently our language has something to do with it. Interesting article from Wired: http://www.wired.com/2014/11/whats-u...ells-language/
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Honestly, I have trouble describing anything unless your brain works like mine. Everything is visual for me, which is why I'm terrible at giving directions.

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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Very interesting. By chance, I recently read something similar in a book on the language of food. Cantonese apparently also has some abstract terms for smell, though apparently they are falling in disuse. The "hong" in hong kong is apparently one such word.

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  5. #5

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    I certainly found that Hong Kong really did hong!!

    But seriously. Describing smell is notoriously difficult, and when I was teaching a beginner's course in Perfumery, it was something that I spent a great deal of time trying to do. We have very few words that are pure descriptors for smell, and most of them are negative (Stench or Stink for example). Even the word "Smell" seems to have a negative connotation . We have to borrow descriptors from other senses to help. So we use colours ( a Green smell), textures (a Powdery smell), anything to help. Often the best way is to describe a smell using personal experience, which doesn't help when describing a smell to someone who doesn't share that experience.

  6. #6

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Makes absolute sense.

    There are terms/words in languages not found in others.
    Maybe similar but not exact.
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    hednic's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by David Ruskin View Post
    Even the word "Smell" seems to have a negative connotation . We have to borrow descriptors from other senses to help. So we use colours ( a Green smell), textures (a Powdery smell), anything to help. Often the best way is to describe a smell using personal experience, which doesn't help when describing a smell to someone who doesn't share that experience.
    How true.
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  8. #8
    Basenotes Institution sjg3839's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Interesting article. Thanks.

  9. #9

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Thanks for this highly captivating and well documented article. Seems that verbal/written language on one hand and any smells, scent notes on the other are two highly different means of expression/perception, not always easy to equate, overlap etc.
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  11. #11
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Interesting article, thanks for sharing.

    Something that gets my attention: "smell" has a negative connotation in English. In Spanish it does not, you will have to use an adjective in order to define if it is good or bad.

    So there are even differences when it comes to indo-european languages.

  12. #12

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by Pollux View Post
    Interesting article, thanks for sharing.

    Something that gets my attention: "smell" has a negative connotation in English. In Spanish it does not, you will have to use an adjective in order to define if it is good or bad.

    So there are even differences when it comes to indo-european languages.
    It is not as negative as "Stink" or "Stench", but I think if someone said "What is that smell?", it would be assumed that the smell was not pleasant. It's all good stuff innit?

  13. #13

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    We have trouble describing them because we don't train for it. We train for visual associations, but not olfactory ones. Even from young ages, we play with colors, we learn about things and we associate colors to them. Also, most colors that we perceive have names in any language, we know what results we get from mixing colors, we have names for the mix too. As for smells, we simply did not trained for them. We value our vision and hearing more than smelling.
    If we would have classes that would teach us, we would start to associate different smells with different names, then we would start to name combinations, we would create an vocabulary and we would be able to discern smells. But not too much point in it, just for perfumery or things like that, as we don't actively use our smelling for too many activities.

  14. #14
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    very informative thanks for sharing

  15. #15

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by Smurfk View Post
    We have trouble describing them because we don't train for it. We train for visual associations, but not olfactory ones. Even from young ages, we play with colors, we learn about things and we associate colors to them. Also, most colors that we perceive have names in any language, we know what results we get from mixing colors, we have names for the mix too. As for smells, we simply did not trained for them. We value our vision and hearing more than smelling.
    If we would have classes that would teach us, we would start to associate different smells with different names, then we would start to name combinations, we would create an vocabulary and we would be able to discern smells. But not too much point in it, just for perfumery or things like that, as we don't actively use our smelling for too many activities.
    I'm so curious about this, the basic question about the origin of the difficulty of connecting words with smells: is it nature or nurture? Anyone know of any research on this?

    I used to take advantage of this very difficulty in my extremely heterogeneous high school classroom. Practicing, and responding to other people's, scent descriptions was challenging but compelling for all of the students, regardless of their literacy skills walking into the room. And the triumphs came from all corners. It was so much fun when they would argue passionately about how to describe a certain smell!

  16. #16
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by David Ruskin View Post
    It is not as negative as "Stink" or "Stench", but I think if someone said "What is that smell?", it would be assumed that the smell was not pleasant. It's all good stuff innit?
    It depends on the context: if you were in a kitchen and you would ask it ("What is that smell?" / "¿Qué es ese olor?") with a grim face the person you are addressing would understand it has a negative connotation. If you were in a ktichen and you would ask the same question with positive non-verbal clues, the person you would be addressing would assume the opposite.

    The same thing would apply if, for example, you'd be in a garden: the answer to the first type of question could be "dog poo", for the second one "jasmine".

    There are words for describing bad smells, "hedor": in Argentina it is sort of a fancy word denoting the speaker is an educated person, so it is quite rare; in Chile is not - in that sense "hiede" has the same meaning as "smells" in English. In Argentine slang the word for "hedor" is "baharanda", but its use is restricted to the River Plate area (Argentina and Uruguay).

    Be aware that profanity does not have the same connotation as in English: expressions like "huele a mierda" - "smells like shit" are quite common among friends, be them close or not (you can always make it less bold with the word "excuse").

    Take in mind Spanish is spoken by over 6 million people, it means there are countless varieties of Spanish among regions. Thus, what I am saying applies to the kind of Spanish spoken in the River Plate area: Italian and Spanish influence is very strong there, so there are many Italian words in this variety of Spanish ("watch out!" > "cuidado" > "guarda" in Argentina, from the Italian "guardare"; "work" > "trabajo" > "laburo" from the Italian "laboro" and so forth).

    I hardly have an idea of how things are in, say, the Peruvian Andes, were the influence of Meditarrenean Europe is minimal - except for Spanish: Spanish and Quichua are Peru's official languages, from that standpoint, it would not surprise me if the connotation of the world "semell" may differ substantially to what I am explaining here.

    Yap, Spanish is a very difficult language:


  17. #17

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    I would say Spanish is a subtle language; as are all languages.

  18. #18

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by leathermountain View Post
    Anyone know of any research on this?
    Just a quick google, but i'm sure you might find more. Search "can you name that smell", first article, should be from sciencemag. Sorry, to new to post links.

    I definitely think it's the result of nurture. As long as nature goes, we can discern a large variety of different scents. I would say that this might go over the visual discern. Not necessary as precision or length, but as the way our brain interpret the results. As vision goes, we know how blue looks like, we know how yellow does. It's not intuitive that if you mix those two you get green. We learned that, but it's not so logical. Also, color variations, we know how violet should look, but we can't point when violet stops being violet and it's getting grape or dark violet. For smell, you smell lemon and you smell vanilla, you don't get a separate smell that does not have anything to do with those base ingredients when mixed. You can discern both.

  19. #19

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by Smurfk View Post
    Just a quick google, but i'm sure you might find more. Search "can you name that smell", first article, should be from sciencemag. Sorry, to new to post links.

    I definitely think it's the result of nurture. As long as nature goes, we can discern a large variety of different scents. I would say that this might go over the visual discern. Not necessary as precision or length, but as the way our brain interpret the results. As vision goes, we know how blue looks like, we know how yellow does. It's not intuitive that if you mix those two you get green. We learned that, but it's not so logical. Also, color variations, we know how violet should look, but we can't point when violet stops being violet and it's getting grape or dark violet. For smell, you smell lemon and you smell vanilla, you don't get a separate smell that does not have anything to do with those base ingredients when mixed. You can discern both.
    Thanks, smurfk. I think the color comparison is quite fascinating, and I can recommend a couple of fun books on that subject. But I think that means I'm supposed to start a new thread!

  20. #20

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    "Performance was slower and less precise when linking a word to its corresponding odor than to its picture." A Designated Odor–Language Integration System in the Human Brain (http://www.jneurosci.org/content/34/45/14864.abstract) - that. I would claim, is clearly a culture-specific modelling of brain functions. In the case of certain jungle-dwelling peoples (hunting and living in an environment that is visually impenetrable) smell becomes a primary means of orientation, identifying the presence of prey, danger etc. and thus highly differntiated and linguiszically organized (see Jonathan Reinartz, Past Scents. Historical Perspectives on Smell, p. 119ff.) Likewise, our Western (broadly speaking) difficulty in describing scent is the logical conclusion of centuries of the devaluation of smell and the sense of smell in logocentric and ocularocentric cultures.
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  21. #21

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    I imagine (untutored speculation) that circa the origins of human language, there might have been significant evolutionary advantages to being able to name smells....

  22. #22

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by Smurfk View Post
    Just a quick google, but i'm sure you might find more. Search "can you name that smell", first article, should be from sciencemag. Sorry, to new to post links.

    I definitely think it's the result of nurture. As long as nature goes, we can discern a large variety of different scents. I would say that this might go over the visual discern. Not necessary as precision or length, but as the way our brain interpret the results. As vision goes, we know how blue looks like, we know how yellow does. It's not intuitive that if you mix those two you get green. We learned that, but it's not so logical. Also, color variations, we know how violet should look, but we can't point when violet stops being violet and it's getting grape or dark violet. For smell, you smell lemon and you smell vanilla, you don't get a separate smell that does not have anything to do with those base ingredients when mixed. You can discern both.
    Not always. Sometimes when mixed in the right ratio a third smell emerges. Perfumers call that an Accord.

  23. #23

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by David Ruskin View Post
    Not always. Sometimes when mixed in the right ratio a third smell emerges. Perfumers call that an Accord.
    I guess the question is why, and per this post topic, why we mentally and linguistically would consider the third smell to be categorically different.

  24. #24

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    I don't know the answer to that. When we know for sure the mechanism of smelling, both in the nose and our interpretation in the brain we might be able to. I guess when two or more smells mix together to produce a third, different, unique smell, different boxes are ticked.

  25. #25

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    The thing is we are not smelling molecules in some objective fashion, but always perceiving any smell in a culturally conditioned context. Just like you can only see a two- dimensional represenation of depth in a Renaissance painting properly if you have been visually socialized to understand perspective (a medieval person wouldn't get it). An accord (or even that notion) would be similarly contingent in its petception, I would assume.

    sent from a mobile device - please excuse any smelling mistakes
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  26. #26

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Thanks for sharing...

  27. #27

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by the_good_life View Post
    The thing is we are not smelling molecules in some objective fashion, but always perceiving any smell in a culturally conditioned context. Just like you can only see a two- dimensional represenation of depth in a Renaissance painting properly if you have been visually socialized to understand perspective (a medieval person wouldn't get it). An accord (or even that notion) would be similarly contingent in its petception, I would assume.

    sent from a mobile device - please excuse any smelling mistakes
    That makes a lot of sense. I hadn't heard this about medieval perspectives on, er, perspective. How could we know that? (Maybe too off-topic. Sorry again.)

  28. #28

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by David Ruskin View Post
    I don't know the answer to that. When we know for sure the mechanism of smelling, both in the nose and our interpretation in the brain we might be able to. I guess when two or more smells mix together to produce a third, different, unique smell, different boxes are ticked.
    Yes, I keep bumping up against that big unknown!

  29. #29

    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by leathermountain View Post
    That makes a lot of sense. I hadn't heard this about medieval perspectives on, er, perspective. How could we know that? (Maybe too off-topic. Sorry again.)
    An equivalent hat I heard of many years ago. Cultures that do not live in an environment with many straight lines (living in a jungle, living in dwellings that are round etc.) do not have our ability to perceive optical illusions involving straight lines. So much is a learning thing.

  30. #30
    hednic's Avatar
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    Default Re: Why we have trouble describing smells...

    Quote Originally Posted by David Ruskin View Post
    An equivalent that I heard of many years ago. Cultures that do not live in an environment with many straight lines (living in a jungle, living in dwellings that are round etc.) do not have our ability to perceive optical illusions involving straight lines. So much is a learning thing.
    That is so fascinating.
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