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Olfaction has recently been highlighted as a sense poorly connected with language. Odor is difficult to verbalize, and it has few qualities that afford mimicry by vision or sound. At the same time, emotion is thought to be the most salient dimension of an odor, and it could therefore be an olfactory dimension more easily communicated. We investigated whether sounds imitative of an innate disgust response can be associated with unpleasant odors. In two experiments, participants were asked to make a forced choice between a pseudoword including a disgust sound and a neutral pseudoword, for pleasant and unpleasant odors. Overall, participants chose more disgust pseudowords than neutral pseudowords for unpleasant odors, but this was not the case for pleasant odors. This effect was not driven by a general association between unpleasant sounds and unpleasant odors, but specifically the sounds [x/χ] and [f], thought to reflect physical responses to disgusting odors, as seen in the Polish fu! or the English ugh!. In line with growing evidence that language can encode odor, we provide the first experimental evidence for an association between the sound of a word and odor valence.

Original publication




Journal article


Cogn Sci

Publication Date





Disgust, Emotional valence, Olfaction, Perceptual language, Disgust, Emotions, Humans, Odorants, Smell, Sound