The linguistics of odour in Semaq Beri and Semelai, two Austroasiatic languages of the Malay Peninsula
Kruspe N., Majid A.
Abstract There is a long history presuming smell is not expressible in language, but numerous studies in recent years challenge this presupposition. Large smell lexica have been reported around the world thereby showing high lexical codability in this domain. Psycholinguistic studies likewise find smell can be described with relatively high agreement, demonstrating high efficient codability. Often the two go hand-in-hand: languages with high lexical codability also display high efficient codability. This study compares two Austroasiatic (Aslian) languages – Semaq Beri and Semelai – previously shown to diverge in their efficient codability for smell: Semaq Beri showed relatively high efficient codability, whereas Semelai did not. Despite this, we demonstrate that both languages have high lexical codability, i.e., large lexica of basic smell terms. This seems to be a feature of the Aslian language family, suggesting a long-standing preoccupation with odours. More generally, the dissociation between lexical and efficient codability suggests a more nuanced approach towards linguistic expressibility is necessary.