Sniffing out the rich odours of Southeast Asian languages

opinion January 30, 2018 01:00

By Michael L Tan 
Philippine Daily Inquirer 
Asia News Network

We Filipinos pride ourselves on the many “smell” words we have in our languages, but it seems this phenomenon is common to tongues across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.



The differences between “smell cultures” and non-smell cultures are well-documented. Think how, in English, smells are reduced to being either pleasant – “fragrant, perfumed” – or unpleasant – “smelly”, “malodorous,” “foul-smelling”.

The latest effort to sniff out these cultural differences is a study published in Current Biology magazine with an intriguing title: “Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction is Special”.

Asifa Majid and Nicole Kruspe from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics designed a clever study comparing two neighbouring tribes in Malaysia – the Semqa Beri who are forest-dwelling hunters – and the Semelai who are slash-and-burn farmers.

Members of the two tribes were asked to identify 16 different odours and 80 colours. The hunters easily identified all 16 smells, and had specific words for each of them, but had difficulty with the colours. With the farmers, it was the other way around. In other words, the hunters were better at detecting and describing smells while the farmers were more visual.

The researchers proposed that smells were more important for hunters, in part because of their environment, leading to more terms for smells.

Majid had previously studied the Jahai, a rainforest foraging group also in Malaysia, and found they too had many descriptive terms for odours. Not only that, but smells were very much part of their worldviews: For example, unpleasant human odours were believed to offend spirits and could cause problems.

‘Underarm explosion’

Here in the Philippines, like other Asian countries with Austroasiatic languages, we have many terms for odours – especially the unpleasant ones. Among the notable ones is “anghit”, a word for underarm odour that has the synonym “putok” (explosion). Imagine an underarm like the Mayon volcano.

If Tagalog seems smell-fixated, consider another Filipino tongue, Ilocano. The “Ilocano Dictionary and Phrasebook” has a chapter on smells which starts off with angot for smells in general (corresponding to the Tagalog amoy), then branches out to banglo (fragrant) and bangsit (foul-smelling). Then come 21 foul smells ranging from angpep (odour of soiled underwear!) to bangles (smell of spoiled vegetables). There’s also a distinction made between anglit (underarm odour) and payod (body odour).

There are another 21 unpleasant smells, presumably not as offensive as the foul ones, such as sanger (smell of liquor), bang-i (smell of toast), and baniit (smell of burnt food).

So despite the findings of Majid and Kruspe, “smell cultures” are obviously not limited to a hunting-gathering environment, where odour sensitivity is useful for survival. From Tagalog and Ilocano we find that even agricultural groups can remain smell cultures.

Terms for unpleasant smells are important in pointing out danger, and in a tropical environment like ours, with the heat and humidity, we need more of such terms as warnings, not just for decaying foods but also for plants, the soil, even the rains.

Since we are so busy smelling objects around us, we end up sniffing, and describing, people as well. Smell words create smell worlds.

Take the Ilocano suob, which refers to the smell of smoke. Suob also refers to the ritual of using plants like guava with burning charcoal to “smoke” a woman who has just delivered a child. This ritual is said to bring back together body organs displaced because of the hardship of childbirth. It is comforting as well as reassuring because there’s also the belief that not undergoing the suob can result, during midlife, in binat, or a delayed relapse of body and joint pains because the organs were not put back in place properly.

Suob as a smell tells us that the suob ritual’s benefits come not just from the warming effect but also from the smoke itself, and its peculiar smell from the plants. If there’s comfort food, there are also comfort smells.

‘He must smell really good’

The list of Ilocano smells include sumusum and aniriir – “soil exhalations after rain”. In Tagalog, we call this singaw ng lupa, believed to cause illnesses brought by alimuom. Note that there is an even broader context for all this: The dangers from sumusum and singaw ng lupa come about because of the perception that rain falling on hot earth, especially with the sun out, creates an unnatural situation that can cause illness.

Culture interacts with biology to create a language of smells. What we see here is “smellscaping”, each culture generating its own repertoire of words referring to smells. The more of these smell-words we have, the more expanded the world of smells becomes, relating to food and eating, to health and illness, and to our social relationships.

The way smells guide us in our pursuit of romance and love deserves a whole column to itself, moving from speculating on how someone might smell, “Parang ang bango-bango niya” (He/she must smell really good) to its confirmation, “Ang bango-bango niya”. I know: It sounds totally unromantic in English. But then the English smellscape is, to borrow the Ilocano term, umag, or deodorised.

Let’s celebrate our smelly 

languages!