An interesting Science News story (I’ve added italics and a link):
English speakers struggle to name odors. While there are words such as blue or purple to describe colors, nothing comparable exists to name odors. Even with familiar everyday odors, such as coffee, banana, and chocolate, English speakers only correctly name the smells around 50% of the time. This has led to the conclusion that smells defy words. Majid and Burenhult present new evidence that this is not true in all languages.
Majid and Burenhult conducted research with speakers of Jahai, a hunter-gatherer language spoken in the Malay Peninsula. In Jahai there are around a dozen different words to describe different qualities of smell. For example, ltpɨt is used to describe the smell of various flowers and ripe fruit, durian, perfume, soap, Aquillaria wood, bearcat, etc. Cŋɛs, another smell word, is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings and bat caves, some species of millipede, root of wild ginger, etc. These terms refer to different odor qualities and are abstract, in the same way that blue and purple are abstract.
…Majid and Burenhult found that Jahai speakers could name odors with the same conciseness and level of agreement as colors, but English speakers struggled to name odors. Jahai speakers overwhelmingly used abstract Jahai smell words to describe odors, whereas English speakers used mostly source-based descriptions (like a banana) or evaluative descriptions (that’s disgusting).
I don’t know how convincing it is, but it’s certainly suggestive, and it’s the sort of thing I like to see linguists looking into.
Addendum. Charlotte Mandell (see this post) sent me this link to Robert Kelly interviewing poet Anne Gorrick about some long poems she’s written “that seem to have grown from a profound engagement with scents, perfumes, the chemistry of attraction and repulsion”; she says “I think it’s funny that we can all agree on what we see, what we hear, what we taste and feel. But not necessarily on what we smell. It’s as if we don’t have the language yet for the sense of smell, but we’re working on it.” There’s a lot of interesting stuff about how we react to smell. Thanks, Charlotte!