Human olfaction at the intersection of language, culture and biology


Philosophers, biologists and anthropologists alike have pondered why humans are limited in their sense of olfaction. Olfactory experiences seem to be "ineffable", difficult or even impossible to put into words. Over a century of research reinforces this conjecture, leading scholars to conclude we have an attenuated sense of smell (e.g. Shepherd, 2004). Olfaction is said to be important for autobiographical memory and emotion (which are processed together in the limbic system) but not for language or semantics (processed in neocortex) (e.g. Lorig, 1999).

But there is accumulating evidence that challenges this view. Humans recognize thousands of distinct smells and can detect odors even in minute quantities. And it appears that there are people who can describe odors easily without recourse to source descriptions. Jahai speakers of the Malay Peninsula are one such group. The Jahai have a rich abstract vocabulary to talk about olfactory qualities (Burenhult & Majid, 2011; Majid & Burenhult, in prep.), and they use these terms as veridically as color terms, for instance, while lacking the expected affective and memory associations. Languages like Jahai challenge our current understanding of olfaction.

This project aims to (1) establish whether identified olfactory terms are indeed abstract in some cultures. Although there is promising evidence in this direction there is no definitive study as yet. The project will take a unique integrative approach and study multiple "smell cultures", both small-scale, lesser-known language communities and experts smellers, such as wine- and tea-experts, within our own community. (2) Test the hypothesis that olfactory language restructures mental representations. The following specific hypotheses will be tested: (a) Conventionalized olfactory language weakens the link between specific odors and autobiographical memory. (b) Olfactory language weakens the direct link between olfaction and emotion. (c) Olfactory language reifies olfactory representations making them easier to bring to consciousness and manipulate.


Wetenschappelijk artikel

  • O. Ozturk, S. Shayan, U. Liskowski, A. Majid(2013): Language is not necessary for color categories Developmental Science pp. 111 - 115
  • A Majid(2013): Making semantics and pragmatics "sensory". Journal of Pragmatics pp. 48 - 51
  • S. Dolscheid, S. Shayan, A. Majid, D. Cassanto(2013): The thickness of musical pitch: Psychophysical evidence for linguistic relativity Psychological Science pp. 613 - 662
  • T. Regier, N. Khetarpal, A. Majid(2013): Inferring semantic maps Linguistic Typology pp. 89 - 105
  • S.C. Levinson, A. Majid(2013): The island of time: Yélî Dnye, the language of Rossel Island Frontiers in Psychology pp. 1 - 11
  • B. Malt, A. Majid(2013): How thought is mapped into words WIREs: Cognitive Science pp. 583 - 597
  • A Majid, F. Jordan, M. Dunn(2014): Semantic systems in closely related languages Language Sciences pp. 1 - 18
  • D.I. Slobin, I. Ibarretxe-Antuñano, A. Kopecka, A Majid(2014): Manners of human gait: a crosslinguistic event-naming study Cognitive Linguistics pp. 701 - 741
  • E Wnuk, A Majid(2014): Revisiting the limits of language: The odor lexicon of Maniq. Cognition pp. 125 - 138
  • A Majid, N Burenhult(2014): Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language Cognition pp. 266 - 270
  • S Levinson, A Majid(2014): Differential Ineffability and the Senses Mind & Language pp. 407 - 427
  • B.C. Malt, E. Ameel, I. Mutsumi, S.P. Gennari, S. Noburo, A. Majid(2014): Human locomotion in languages: Constraints on moving and meaning. Journal of Memory and Language pp. 107 - 123
  • E. Wnuk, N. Burenhult(2014): Contact and isolation in hunter-gatherer language dynamics: Evidence from Maniq phonology (Aslian, Malay Peninsula) Studies in Language pp. 956 - 981
  • S. Shayan, O. Ozturk, M. Bowerman, A. Majid(2014): Spatial metaphor in language can promote the development of cross-modal mappings in children. Developmental Science pp. 636 - 643
  • S Dolscheid, S Hunnius, D Casasanto, A Majid(2014): Prelinguistic infants are sensitive to space-pitch associations found across cultures. Psychological Science pp. 1256 - 1261
  • J.M. De Valk, J. Wijnen, M.E. Kret(2015): Anger fosters action Frontiers in Psychology pp. 1 - 7
  • L. San Roque, K. Kendrick, E. Norcliffe, P. Brown, R. Defina, M. Dingemanse, T. Dirksmeyer, N.J. Enfield, S. Floyd, J. Hammond, G. Rossi, S. Tufvesson, S. van Putten, A Majid(2015): Vision verbs dominate in conversation across cultures, but the ranking of non-visual verbs varies Cognitive Linguistics pp. 31 - 60
  • L. San Roque, K.H. Kendrick, E. Norcliffe, P. Brown, R. Defina, M. Dingemanse, T. Dirksmeyer, N.J. Enfield, S. Floyd, J. Hammond, G. Rossi, S. Tufvesson, S. van Putten, A Majid(2015): Vision verbs dominate in conversation across cultures, but the ranking of non-visual verbs varies Cognitive Linguistics pp. 31 - 60
  • A Majid(2015): Cultural factors shape olfactory language Trends in Cognitive Science pp. tba - tba
  • A. Majid, M. Van Staden(2015): Can nomenclature for the body be explained by embodiment theories? Topics in Cognitive Science pp. 570 - 594 ISSN: 1756-8765.
  • I. Croijmans, A. Majid(2016): Not All Flavor Expertise Is Equal: The Language of Wine and Coffee Experts PLoS ONE pp. 1 - 21
  • J. Huisman, A. Majid, J. de Valk, E. Wnuk(2016): Odor–color associations differ with verbal descriptors for odors: A comparison of three linguistically diverse groups. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review pp. 1 - 9
  • B. Todil, T. M Van Leeuwen, A. Agameya, M. Dingemanse, A. Majid(2016): Nonrandom associations of graphemes with colors in Arabic Multisensory Research (Advance online publication 2015) pp. 223 - 252 ISSN: 2213-4794.
  • L. Speed, A. Arshamian, A. Majid, I. Croijmans(2017): What makes a better smeller? Perception pp. 406 - 430
  • A Majid, J M De Valk, E Wnuk, J L A Huisman(2017): Hot and cold smells: Odor-temperature associations across cultures Frontiers in Psychology pp. 1 - 7 ISSN: 1664-1078.

Hoofdstuk in boek

  • A Majid, J. L. Jackson(2013): Oxford Bibliographies Online pp. 0 - 0 , Oxford
  • A. Majid(2014): Oxford Handbooks Online pp. 0 - 1 , Oxford
  • E. Dabrowska, G. Vigliocco, L.J. Speed, D. Vinson, D. Divjak(2015): Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. pp. 190 - 210 , London/New York
  • B. Malt, S. Gennari, M. Imai, E. Ameel, N. Saji, A Majid(2015): pp. unknown - unknown , Cambridge
  • N. Kruspe, N. Burenhult, E. Wnuk(2015): The Handbook of Austroasiatic Languages pp. 415 - 474 , Leiden
  • S Dekker, J de Valk, A Majid, P Manko(2017): Scientific breakthroughs in the classroom! pp. 40 - 76 , Nijmegen
  • J Van Baren-Nawrocka, P Manko, S Dekker, A Majid, J de Valk(2017): Wetenschappelijke doorbraken de klas in! pp. 128 - 166 , Nijmegen
  • A Majid, E Wnuk, L. J. Speed, P Hagoort, A De Groot(2018): Research methods in psycholinguistics and the neurobiology of language pp. 190 - 207 , Hoboken

Publicatie bedoeld voor een breed publiek

Professionele publicatie

  • A. Majid, S. van Putten, L. San Roque(2016): Taal en de zintuigen pp. 10 - 13


  • A Majid(2012): Olfactory language in hunter-gatherer communities
  • A Majid(2013): Sensory properties within languages and without language
  • A Majid(2013): What cross-cultural data tells us about odors and memory
  • A Majid, A Gaby, L Boroditsky(2013): Time in terms of space
  • A Majid(2013): Olfaction at the intersection of the humanities and the brain
  • A Majid(2013): Frontiers in Cognitive Science
  • A Majid(2013): Language and memory for 21st century Malaysia
  • A Majid(2013): Meaning, mind, culture
  • A Majid(2013): Space as a metaphor for time and sound across cultures
  • A Majid(2013): Academia Europaea
  • A Majid(2013): Discourse Processes
  • A Majid(2013): Emotion Review
  • A Majid(2013): Language and memory for 21st century Malaysia
  • (2013): Meaning: Shaped by culture, fit to the mind
  • A Majid(2013): Space as a metaphor for time and sound across cultures
  • A Majid(2013): Meaning, mind, culture
  • B van Maris(2013): Zo ruikt een zonnige dag
  • A Majid(2013): Olfactory language and cognition
  • A Majid(2013): What cross-cultural data tells us about odors and memory
  • A Majid(2013): Frontiers in Cultural Psychology
  • A Majid(2013): Cross-modal correspondences in the language of perception
  • (2014): Does speaking English limit our sense of SMELL?
  • W. Krischke(2014): Linguistik der Düfte
  • S. Decorte(2014): Hoe noem je de geur van bloemen?
  • N. Himmelmann(2014): Sprachenvielfalt als natürliches Experiment
  • A Majid(2014): The relationship between words and concepts
  • (2014): Press Overview 2014
  • M. Karala(2014): Hajuaistia voi harjoittaa
  • A Majid(2014): Is space special
  • (2014): Why can't English speakers say what they smell
  • A Majid(2014): Language ?? Thought panel
  • M. Kolkman(2014): Oud eten ruikt nogal pkoes
  • A. Krzeminska(2014): Nos ma glos
  • (2014): It's pretty hard to put a smell into words
  • (2014): English speakers, you stink at identifying smells
  • (2014): N/A
  • A. Franz(2014): Thailand: Urwaldbewohner unterscheiden 15 abstrakte Duft-Namen
  • (2014): Dofter och färger ? bara en tolkningsfråga
  • A. Gerschenfeld(2014): Na língua deste povo nómada da Malásia há todo um mundo de cheiros
  • E. Wnuk(2015): Smell terminology and cross-modal smell associations among three culturally and linguistically diverse groups
  • A. Majid, L.J. Speed(2015): Comprehension of words describing speed involves speed in auditory and visual perception.
  • A Majid(2015): New Perspectives in Semantic Typology
  • (2015): N/A
  • I. Croijmans(2015): Odor naming is difficult, even for wine and coffee experts
  • I. Croijmans(2015): Quantifying the Language of Dutch Flavour Experts
  • (2015): Press Overview 2015
  • I. Croijmans, L.J. Speed(2015): Olfactory language and cognition: Hunter-gatherers, Experts and Synesthetes
  • L.J. Speed, A. Majid(2015): Olfactory language and cognition in odour-colour synaesthesia
  • I Croijmans, A Majid(2015): Flavour expertise and its influence on olfactory language
  • A Majid(2015): What cross-cultural research can tell us about colours and odours
  • A Majid(2015): Categorising human locomotion in language and thought
  • I. Croijmans(2015): The domain specific influence of expertise on flavour naming
  • A. Majid, L.J. Speed(2015): Grammatical gender affects odour perception and memory
  • A Majid(2015): The development of sound-space associations
  • (2015): We kunnen nauwelijks omschrijven hoe iets ruikt
  • S. Floyd(2016): How the Incas said 'yuck!' Exclamations of disgust and the Quechuan exclamative word class.
  • L. San Roque, B.B. Schieffelin(2016): Perception verbs in context: Perspectives from Bosavi (Kaluli) child-caregiver interaction.
  • I. Croijmans(2016): Blauwe wijn: hip maar moeilijk
  • I. Croijmans(2016): Getrainde neus beschrijft alleen 'eigen' geuren beter
  • L. Speed(2016): Odour cognition in odour-colour synaesthesia
  • A. Majid(2016): What cross-linguistic research can tell us about space
  • A. Majid, J. de Valk, J. Huisman, E. Wnuk, P. Manko(2016): Bringing Science to the classroom
  • C. O'meara, A. Majid, L. Speed, L. San Roque(2016): Perception Metaphor Workshop
  • I. Croijmans(2016): Hoe smaakt de wijn?
  • A. Majid(2016): The content of mind
  • I. Croijmans(2016): Communiceren met geur, communiceren over geur.
  • A. Majid, I. Croijmans(2016): Language does not explain the domain-specific memory advantage of wine experts
  • L. Speed(2016): Do classifier categories affect or reflect object concepts?
  • A. Majid(2016): The limits of language.
  • A. Majid(2016): The Neglected Sense
  • A. Majid, I. Croijmans(2016): The science of beer
  • A. Majid, C. O'Meara, L. Speed, S. van Putten(2016): Lab demonstration at Drongo festival
  • A. Majid(2016): Als het in taal is uit te drukken...
  • L. Speed(2016): Spatial simulation of perceptual modalities.
  • P. Manko, J. Huisman, A. Majid, I. Croijmans, L. Speed(2016): Hoe voelt blauw? Hoe klinkt citroengeur? Welke verbanden leg jij tussen je zintuigen?
  • I. Croijmans(2016): Wijn recenseren kun je leren
  • I. Croijmans(2016): VRT Radio 1 Belgie - Interview with Ilja Croijmans
  • L. Speed(2016): Rosemary and rain: Comparing the embodiment of sound and smell words.
  • L. Speed(2016): The effect of olfactory synaesthesia on odour language and cognition.
  • A. Majid, I. Croijmans(2016): Human olfaction at the intersection of language, culture and biology
  • E. Wnuk(2016): Een taal met verfijnde werkwoorden
  • E. Wnuk(2016): Semantic specificity of verbs in Maniq (Austroasiatic, Thailand)
  • E. Wnuk(2016): Specificity at the basic level in event taxonomies: The case of Maniq verbs of ingestion.
  • A. Majid(2016): What do hunter-gatherers and wine-experts have in common?
  • I. Croijmans, A. Majid(2016): Language does not explain the domain-specific memory advantage of wine experts
  • I. Croijmans(2016): Sportzomer 2016 - Interview with Ilja Croijmans
  • I. Croijmans(2016): De Taalstand met Frits Spits - Interview with Ilja Croijmans
  • E. Wnuk(2016): Specificity at the basic level in event taxonomies: The case of Maniq verbs of ingestion
  • L. Speed(2016): Grammatical gender affects odor cognition.
  • E. Wnuk(2016): The language of scents
  • J. Huisman, A. Majid, P. Buyruk(2016): Taste-Colour Associations in Turkish and Dutch.
  • A. Majid(2016): Why culture matters: A tour of olfactory language and cognition from hunter-gatherers to wine experts.
  • E Wnuk(2017): Odor-temperature associations across cultures.
  • E Wnuk(2017): Capturing the meaning of smell terms: A case study of Thai
  • A Majid, A Arshamian, L J Speed, I Croijmans(2017): Olfactory memory of wine experts and novices
  • A Majid, L J Speed(2017): Superior olfactory language and cognition in odor-color synaesthesia
  • K Hof(2017): Talking About Talking About Taste And Smell With Linguist Ilja Croijmans
  • E Wnuk(2017): Odor awareness in a mobile hunter-gatherer culture
  • A Majid, L J Speed, I Croijmans(2017): Cross-modal associations with odor across development
  • A Majid, L J Speed(2017): Embodiment of odor and sound words
  • I Croijmans, A Majid(2017): Flavour language of experts
  • A Arshamian, L J Speed, I Croijmans, A Majid(2017): Mental imagery in wine experts and novices
  • L J Speed, A Majid(2017): Comparing embodiment of sound and smell words
  • S Smythe Kung, A Majid, C O'Meara(2017): Smell and taste terms in Huehuetla Tepehua.
  • A Arshamian, A Majid, L J Speed, I Croijmans(2017): Mental Imagery in wine experts and novices
  • E Wnuk(2017): Structure of odor lexicons as a window into olfactory perception
  • A Majid, C O'Meara(2017): Seri odor awareness and changing landscape
  • L Gaukema(2017): Hoe belangstelling voor geuren je beter doet ruiken
  • L Gaukema(2017): Belangstelling voor geuren laat je beter ruiken
  • C O'Meara(2017): When to use which frame of reference: Landmark-based systems in Seri
  • E Renkens(2017): Kleuren bij geuren zorgen voor scherpere neus
  • S Dolscheid, I Croijmans, A Majid, L J Speed(2017): Acquiring pitch associations across modalities: the role of experience
  • I Croijmans, E Lefever, A Majid, I Hendrickx, A Van den Bosch(2017): Predicting wine properties from expert wine reviews
  • E Wnuk(2017): Escaping the limits of language: Dedicated words for smells.






Prof. dr. A. Majid

Verbonden aan

Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Faculteit der Letteren


Drs. I.M. Croijmans, Prof. dr. A. Majid, P. Manko, C.K. O'Meara, Dr. D.M. Richter-Kemmermann, Dr. H. de Sousa, Dr. L.J.S. Speed, Dr. L.J.S. Speed, J.M. de Valk, Dr. E.M. Wnuk


01/09/2012 tot 31/08/2017