From Plato to Pinker there has been the common belief that the experience of a smell is impossible to put into words. Decades of studies have confirmed this observation. But the studies to date have focused on participants from urbanized Western societies. Cross-cultural research suggests that there may be other cultures where odors play a larger role. The Jahai of the Malay Peninsula are one such group. We tested whether Jahai speakers could name smells as easily as colors in comparison to a matched English group. Using a free naming task we show on three different measures that Jahai speakers find it as easy to name odors as colors, whereas English speakers struggle with odor naming. Our findings show that the long-held assumption that people are bad at naming smells is not universally true. Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.
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