We Filipinos pride ourselves in the many “smell words” we have in our languages, but it seems this is also the case in many other cultures, especially in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Just as a reminder of the contrast between “smell cultures” and, well, nonsmell cultures, think how, in English, smells are either nice (for which we would use a term like “fragrant”) or not nice (“smelly,” “malodorous,” “foul-smelling”).
The differences are well-documented but scientists have considered this topic important enough to launch research to explain why there are such differences. A recent study published in Current Biology has an intriguing title: “Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction is Special.” It is authored by
Asifa Majid and Nicole Kruspe, both with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.
The two researchers designed a clever study comparing two neighboring tribes in Malaysia—the Semqa Beri who are hunters living in a forested environment and the Semelai who are swidden (what we would call kaingin or slash-and-burn) agriculturists.
Members of the two tribes were asked to identify 16 odors that had been put on “sniffing sticks” and 80 color chips. The results showed that the hunters easily identified the 16 odors, or at least had specific descriptive terms for each of them, but had difficulty with the colors. With the farmers, it was the other way around. In other words, the hunters were better at smell terms while the farmers were more visual.
Such findings are not new but the study design was, in effect comparing two groups that are genetically and linguistically similar but different in terms of environment and subsistence, leading the researchers to propose that smells were probably more important for hunters, in part because of their environment, leading to more terms for smells.
Majid had previously conducted another research study among the Jahai, a rainforest foraging group also in Malaysia, published as “Olfaction in Aslian Ideology.” Like the Semqa Beri, the Jahai had many descriptive terms for odors. Not only that, odors were very much part of their world views: For example, unpleasant odors caused by human activities were believed to offend the supernatural and could cause problems.
And in the Philippines. As in other Austroasiatic languages, we have many terms for odors, especially the unpleasant ones. Here are a few: alingasaw, antot, anghit, panghi. I’m not providing translations because of space limitations, except for anghit, which refers to underarm odor, with a synonym, putok (explosion). Imagine an underarm like Mayon Volcano.
If Tagalog seems smell-fixated, consider Ilocano. Carl Galvez Rubino’s Ilocano Dictionary and Phrasebook has a chapter on smells, which starts off with angot for smells in general (corresponding to the Tagalog amoy), then branches out to banglo (fragrant) and bangsit (foul-smelling). Then come 21 foul smells ranging from angpep (smell of soiled underwear!) to bangles (smell of spoiled vegetables). There’s also a distinction made between
anglit (underarm odor) and payod (body odor).
There are another 21 unpleasant smells, presumably not as offensive as the foul ones, such as sanger (smell of liquor), bang-i (smell of toast), and baniit (smell of burnt food).
Topping off those 42 smell terms are 12 “others”—sabeng (smell of certain fruits) and suob (smell of smoke). And, why not, there’s sangot for a weak, diffused odor and umag, which means odorless.
I want to link this Ilocano listing with the recent studies I cited earlier. The researchers suggest that subsistence impacts on language and that in a hunting-gathering environment, more terms around smells are useful for survival. But from Tagalog and Ilocano we find that even agricultural groups can remain “smell cultures.”
This leads me to propose that perhaps the language of smells, like other linguistic categories, responds to usefulness. I’m being generic with the term “useful.” Some terms might be important, literally, for survival, such as the many terms for foods and their state of decay. You can link this to the way we Filipinos are always smelling our food before we eat, or, in cafeterias, before we buy. We avoid food poisoning, smelling to check if food is malansa ( the primary meaning pertains to the smell of fish, but the extended meaning refers to spoiled food). But we also smell food to check it with our brain’s database: Ah, this tastes delicious.
Terms for unpleasant smells are important in pointing out danger, and in a tropical environment like ours, with the heat and humidity, and lush vegetation, we need more of such terms as warnings, not just for decaying foods but also for plants, the soil, even the rains.
Since we are so busy smelling objects around us, we end up sniffing, and describing, people as well. Smell words create smell worlds.
Take the Ilocano suob, which refers to the smell of smoke. Suob also refers to the ritual of using a combination of plants like guava (Psidium guavaja) and sambong (Blumea balsamifera) with burning charcoal to “smoke” a woman who has just delivered a child. This ritual is said to bring back together body organs displaced because of the hardship of childbirth. It is comforting as well as reassuring because there’s also the belief that not undergoing the suob can result, during midlife, in binat, or a delayed relapse of body and joint pains because the organs were not put back in place properly.
Suob as a smell tells us that the suob ritual’s benefits come not just from the warming effect but also from the smoke itself, and its peculiar smell from the plants. If there’s comfort food, there are also comfort smells.
Rubino’s list of Ilocano smells include sumusum and aniriir, which he defines as “soil exhalations after rain.” In Tagalog, we call this singaw ng lupa, believed to cause illnesses brought by alimuom. Note that there is an even broader context for all this: The dangers from sumusum and singaw ng lupa come about because of the perception that rain falling on hot earth, especially with the sun out, creates an unnatural situation that then causes illness.
Culture interacts with biology to create a language of smells. What we see here is “smellscaping,” each culture generating its own repertoire of words referring to smells. The more of these smell-words we have, the more expanded the world of smells becomes, relating to food and eating, to health and illness, and to our social relationships.
I’m saving for a future column the way smells guide us in our pursuit of romance and love, moving from speculating on how someone might smell, “Parang ang bango-bango niya” (He/she must smell really good) to confirming, “Ang bango-bango niya.” I know: It sounds totally unromantic in English because the English smellscape is, to borrow the Ilocano term, umag, or deodorized.
Let’s celebrate our smelly languages!
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