Words for smells

Today’s Calvin and Hobbes:

We accept the conceit that Hobbes is a tiger, with many tigerish properties, but a sentient tiger with the power of speech and an extensive knowledge of our culture. But now it turns out that tigers have a linguistic culture of their own, to fit with their tigerish nature.

3 Responses to “Words for smells”

  1. Stephen Anderson Says:

    This actually raises a rather important point about language and cognition. It seems that the visual system is quite tightly integrated with language: think how accurately you can describe something you’ve seen, and how clearly you can visualize a scene on the basis of someone else’s description, due to extensive linguistic semantics relating to visual experience. Compare that with smells and (apart from the four or five basic ones) tastes (most of which are really smells): we really can only describe these things by analogy, through appealing to shared experience. “This tastes/smells like old socks” works to the extent you and your interlocutor have both tasted/smelled old socks, but not otherwise, and there’s no other way to convey the sensory impression (unless you’re a tiger, apparently). Sensory modalities other than vision, and to a limited extent hearing, just aren’t linked to language. I organized a seminar at AAAS years ago about this, picking up on what happens when we try to describe the taste of wines (and involving Adrienne Lehrer, who wrote the book on this, and someone from the UC Davis Department of Oenology, where they have developed rather precise terminology for wine tasting, based on rigorously controlled shared experience).

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