Olfaction in Aslian ideology and language

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The cognitive- and neuro-sciences have supposed that the perceptual world of the individual is dominated by vision, followed closely by audition, but that olfaction is merely vestigial. Aslian-speaking communities (Austroasiatic, Malay Peninsula) challenge this view. For the Jahai — a small group of rainforest foragers — odor plays a central role in both culture and language. Jahai ideology revolves around a complex set of beliefs which structures the human relationship with the supernatural. Central to this relationship are hearing, vision and olfaction. In Jahai language, olfaction also receives special attention. There are at least a dozen or so abstract descriptive odor categories that are basic, everyday terms. This lexical elaboration of odor is not unique to the Jahai but can seen across many contemporary Austroasiatic languages and transcends major cultural and environmental boundaries. These terms appear to be inherited from ancestral language states, suggesting a long-standing preoccupation with odor in this part of the world. Contrary to the prevailing assumption in the cognitive sciences, these languages and cultures demonstrate that odor is far from vestigial in humans.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics


  • Jahai, language of perception, Aslian, Austroasiatic, olfaction
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-29
JournalThe Senses & Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015. The record was previously connected to the following departments: Linguistics and Phonetics (015010003)