Author Topic: Smell Language?  (Read 1851 times)

Offline Corybobory

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Smell Language?
« on: January 04, 2014, 04:26:35 AM »
I just stumbled across an interesting article about the language of smell:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140103085248.htm

"It is widely believed that people are bad at naming odors. This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain. But is this really so? Psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen and linguist Niclas Burenhult from Lund University Sweden find new evidence for smell language in the Malay Peninsula. The research appeared online in Cognition, 23 December 2013."

It is hard to describe smell, isn't it!
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Smell Language?
« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2014, 12:25:06 PM »
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It is hard to describe smell, isn't it!
Yes. But this claim is ridiculous:
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"...This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain...."
If that's true, then the representation of most of the 40-or-so earlier presidents of the United States is also inaccessible to the language center in my brain. And also, for that matter, the articulatory representations for sounds, for most people-- eg, "nasal" or "deep".

The fact that we can't articulate something is not evidence that it's inaccessible to language. It means we just don't categorize it consciously.

Certainly we have some representation of smells, but compare this to faces: there are many, many people who I recognize but cannot name. That doesn't mean that facial representations are inaccessible to language; it means that I don't have names for all of the faces. I imagine that I could, if so inclined, arbitrarily name all of the smells (or faces).


On the other hand, I suppose this might be true in some profoundly boring sense: the olfactory center in the brain is not the same as the language center, and the olfactory center does not supply a special lexicon from birth :P
Same with, y'know, everything.

Sorry... unfounded uninsightful claims like that make me angry. "I understand the brain... because I made a random hypothesis!" Yay, pseudoscience.


--
As for the article, that's great!

1. It's just interesting typologically.

2. It supports the intuitive (and rather obvious?) idea that if a culture needs to consistently name smells, it will.

3. It supports a light version of Linguistic Relativity, where language and culture interact, and practice with that language and culture help performance in certain domains. (I imagine bilinguals, if they exist, would also be better at naming odors in English-- practice effects, plus maybe some transfer.)
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Offline Corybobory

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Re: Smell Language?
« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2014, 12:40:12 PM »
I know, it's a strange claim to jump from smell being hard to describe, to "smell representations not being accessable to language centres of the brain".  What does that mean even?  I hadn't heard it suggested before; it's also notoriously difficult to express spatial information linguistically, I doubt anyone would make the claim that "spatial representation are not accessable to language centres of the brain"...

But ignoring that, it's interesting that a language has such conventional terms for categorizing types of smell!  I wonder what sort of functional incentive there is for these descriptors?
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Smell Language?
« Reply #3 on: January 04, 2014, 12:50:24 PM »
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I know, it's a strange claim to jump from smell being hard to describe, to "smell representations not being accessable to language centres of the brain".  What does that mean even?  I hadn't heard it suggested before; it's also notoriously difficult to express spatial information linguistically, I doubt anyone would make the claim that "spatial representation are not accessable to language centres of the brain"...
Indeed!
I wonder if it's a strawman argument. If not, someone actually made that claim... ha.

Quote
But ignoring that, it's interesting that a language has such conventional terms for categorizing types of smell!  I wonder what sort of functional incentive there is for these descriptors?
Sounds like it's a hunter-gatherer society probably in dense forest, where smell is actually useful for survival and well-being (from the limited description in that article-- I didn't read the academic article yet, but I did save a copy from my university's library for later).
I imagine that if dogs were to develop language they would also develop lexical items for odors. So it seems that in this language visual information is not as privileged over olfactory information as in English. But they also can name colors well, so it's not a direct trade-off. (But arguably naming colors consistently isn't hard, so it doesn't need to be a tradeoff. Likewise, naming odors probably isn't hard if you have a need to and practice.)


I do wonder one thing though: are they really using lexical terms for odors, or are they using odors to identify referents? It's somewhat hard to separate those, but it's a little weird to imagine even a dog speaking about a specific odor, rather than what created the odor, perhaps even categorized by having similar odors. So a bloodhound would probably be able to identify you or me by scent, but then they would actually probably name us directly rather than the name of our scent.
But I suppose they were using odors analogously to colors. Still... is a color a visual thing, or is it a referent identified visually? If it's a referent identified visually, there's no necessary association between the "visual center" and "linguistic center" in the brain either (also an unfounded conclusion).

I'd venture to say that this culture smells things (and values smell) more than we do. Beyond that, I don't know that there's much more to say-- linguistically, cognitively, etc. (I doubt that they've actually evolved superior smell, although if so that would be interesting; in fact, if anything I'd guess we've lost it or just don't practice it.)
And, importantly but not surprisingly, linguistic behavior follows general behavior. Good to have more evidence to that effect, but not remarkable if you don't hold some other (in my opinion odd, but possibly widespread) opinion.
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