Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Ongee - A Nose-Wise Society

The Adamanese people, along with the Ongee, are from the Bay of Bengal and have a very rich vocabulary for smells.

"There is no language for smells, because it bypasses the language centers of the brain.”

This is one of the basic ideas behind Hidden Scents, and is taken from a recent interview I did. I would like to welcome public commentary of the above quote as an opportunity to mention a very special culture, The Ongee:

public commentary:
“Not true of all cultures, some have a rich language to describe smells.”

The commenter is correct in that there are cultures using a much richer vocabulary for their olfactory experience than the one used in any Western culture.

an excerpt from a concluding section in my book:
In the Bay of Bengal live the Ongee people. A “nose-wise” society, they treat olfaction with as much importance as Western vision. When the West once asked the Ongee for help in making a map of their land, the Ongee man responded: “All the places in space are constantly changing. The creek is never the same; …. Your map tells lies. Places change. Does your map say that?” (Pandya 1991). Smell is like this. Whether through the meanderings of history, or the chimerical configurations of post-modernity, smell is always changing. The Ongee are right; there are no maps, no categories, and no lexicon to show that.
Pandya V (1990). Movement and Space: Andamanese Cartography. American Ethnologist 17:775–797.

For those interested, I should also mention Asifa Majid, who currently does work on this precise subject. She studies the odor lexicon of the The Aslian (Austroasiatic) languages of the Malay Peninsula, Southeast Asia.

Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhult. CognitionNovember 2013.

Post Script:
Currently, there are only 94 native speakers of Ongee, confined to a single settlement in the northeast of Little Andaman island, making it an endangered language.
Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Eighteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International.

No comments:

Post a Comment