Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Language

The Hard Lexicon, photo Alamy 

There aren't many who share with me The Language of Smell search results.

Zoologist Robert Burton wrote a book mostly about insect olfaction back in the 70’s. But the owner of the majority of the search-result volume goes to Dr. Asifa Majid and her work on the language of olfaction.

She studies people native to the lands of the Bay of Bengal. These people are very different from the post-industrial person in many ways, the most salient of which, for Majid at least, is in their “olfactory vocabulary”.

Unlike the post-industrial citizen, these people have a rich lexicon by which they can identify the odorous information surrounding them. Via Majid, these peoples are also the quintessential rebuttal to the argument that there is no such thing as a “language of smell”. And I couldn't be more disheartened every time I hear it.

I write here in the utmost respect for Dr. Majid, her work, and the people she studies. She is, after all, the only person known to be pursuing this distinct line of inquiry with such precision, so her contributions are much appreciated. I will not go so far to say that we are wrong in saying that these people are living proof of a working language for olfactive experience, only that the devil is in the details. So let us begin this exercise of relative measurement; I'll cut to the easiest point.

The people in question do not use language in the same way as the scientists studying with them, and so the very word “language” must be clearly defined. Here’s a reminder: in conducting linguistic studies upon many indigenous people, the first thing the intrepid scientist must do is to explain what a word is. That's right, the very concept of the sentence as constructed of simpler words is very unfamiliar if not unknown to certain cultures, and must be painstakingly explained before any “studying” can take place.

I ask the reader – if the Sigma Aldrich chemical catalog for flavors and fragrance ingredients describes 1000 molecules using 3000 descriptors all of which occur as single words, and yet the group of people in question do not even have words, how can we begin to make comparisons between their olfactory lexicon and that of a common Westerner?

I insinuate not even a whisper of Whorf hypothesis in this: A common Westerner of the 21st century spends a great deal of time in the virtual mindspace, very much removed from the physical environment, very much interacting not with molecules but with thoughts. There is an interstitial space which exists between the person and the world, and this is the collective mindspace of culture.

The post-industrialized human does not perform in a cycle of environmental stimulus and bodily response, but separates the two in time, opening a place for reflection and deliberation. Subjectively-conscious, self-reflective thought interrupts our direct connection with the world around us. Furthermore, systems functioning only via chemical stimuli are de-prioritized for others better suited to simulation and virtual manipulation.

The rich olfactory vocabulary of Majid’s study groups, is it not an indication of the direct reliance upon their physical environment? Instead of it proving that there can be such a thing as a ‘language of smell’, does it not further support that the two – olfaction and language – are mutually exclusive? I believe this is a case of apples and oranges, but because the subject matter straddle disciplines (psychology, linguistics, sensory studies) it evades such critical analysis.

Post Script
readings from Primitive Mentality
Lucien Levy-Bruhl, 1923, trans 1966

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