LINGUIST List 32.3678

Mon Nov 22 2021

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; General Linguistics; Typology: Jędrzejowski, Staniewski (2021)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 30-Sep-2021
From: David Robertson <>
Subject: The Linguistics of Olfaction
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Łukasz Jędrzejowski
EDITOR: Przemysław Staniewski
TITLE: The Linguistics of Olfaction
SUBTITLE: Typological and Diachronic Approaches to Synchronic Diversity
SERIES TITLE: Typological Studies in Language 131
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2021

REVIEWER: David Douglas Robertson, University of Victoria


The 131st installment in Benjamins’ far-ranging “Typological Studies in Language (TSL)” series brings together investigations of a still under-researched domain of language use, that of how the sense of smell is expressed and how this varies among the world’s languages. This volume effectively establishes the point of reference from which further crosslinguistic work will proceed, showing a number of tendencies and dimensions of variation that have been identified so far.

The editors’ opening chapter, “Rendering What the Nose Perceives: An Introduction” (1-34) presents, as is typical for such collections, a précis of the state of the art in this area of study. As this subject will be unfamiliar to the large majority of linguists, I will describe this sketch in more detail than I will accord to the remaining chapters. Here it is noted that olfaction research is increasing in a number of fields, such as zoology and neuroscience, so the recent burst of linguistic work on it is situated within a larger intellectual trend; in each field significant new findings are emerging. While human brains can distinguish a trillion smells, individual languages’ repertoires of basic olfactory terms only seem to get as large as a dozen or two. Some of that range of variation has been theorized to correlate with what may be characterized as an industrial vs. pre-industrial split among cultures; further research needs to be done into how unique each culture’s linguistic construction of smell is. Many languages have a distinct (sub-)class of “ophresaesthemes”, i.e. odor-words that show unique morphosyntax. A hierarchy has been proposed in which certain of the sensory faculties are crosslinguistically more likely to lexicalize than others, with sight the most frequent, followed by hearing and then touch, and with last place shared by smell and taste; further research is needed to verify this, and to investigate to what extent it applies to metaphorical extensions. Various languages, even closely related ones, are differently permissive of extended uses of sensory expressions, e.g. of ‘see’ as ‘understand’. Some languages show sensitivity to the animacy hierarchy in the use of such metaphors. Not all smelling verbs develop non-literal senses in every language; in many cases the predicate type (experience, activity, or stative) influences this outcome. Contrary to previous speculation that olfaction interacts little with grammar, in a number of languages it has already become clear that morphology plays crucial roles in the expression of this sense modality, be it in the form of dedicated classifiers, special uses of reduplication, exploitation of case distinctions, et al. However, olfaction does not seem to interact much with evidentiality. The diachrony of smell terms, to the extent that research has yet been done, indicates a universal tendency of pejoration, as well as of development from words for air/wind/breath, smoke, etc.

Chapter 2, “Why is Smell Special? A Case Study of a European Language: Swedish” by Åke Viberg (35-72), notes that while this language’s olfactory lexicon is small, a detailed corpus analysis reveals several illuminating findings. Smells, for example, are conceptualized differently in Swedish (as sensations, carrying hedonic overtones; also as characteristics of entire situations) than are colors (which are spoken of as objective properties of things).

Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano contributes Chapter 3, “The Domain of Olfaction in Basque” (73-111) shows that copulative perception constructions correlate in this language with characteristics and emotion, standing in contrast with active and experiencer odor perception, which align with intellectual processes such as thinking and seeking. It is shown that the great majority of smell words in Basque are infrequent in present-day discourse.

In Chapter 4, “On Olfactory Terminology in Georgian and Other Kartvelian Languages” (113-135), Manana Kobaidze, Revaz Tchantouria and Karina Vamling primarily focuses on Standard Georgian and Megrelian in a more diachronic light, showing a certain propensity for metaphoric extension across sensory modalities. Verbs denoting olfaction can, if already carrying negative connotations, acquire metaphoric extensions.

The fifth chapter, written by Kate Bellamy, is “Let Me Count the Ways It Stinks: A Typology of Olfactory Terms in Purepecha (Mexico)” (137-173) presents a language which uses morphology that is specific to olfaction, a rarity; 15 abstract smell terms (ones that are phonologically and semantically distinct from the nouns for their referents) have been identified so far. These are compared with lexicon from the modality of tasting. Diachronic variability is found depending on the elicitation strategy used with speakers, but the structure of this lexical field has remained fairly stable for centuries.

Chapter 6 is “Olfactory, Gustatory and Tactile Perception in Beja (North-Cushitic)” by Martine Vanhove and Mohamed-Tahir Hamid Ahmed (175-198) compares the lexicon of all three “lower senses”, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile. Smell has the most varied (largest) lexicon of these, with a preference for verbs, yet it produces the least number of metaphors, far overshadowed by expressions based on tasting. Source-oriented constructions, e.g. ‘to emit a pleasant odor’, prevail except in the domain of touch.

From Renée Lambert-Brétière we have Chapter 7 on “How to Smell without a Verb ‘to smell’ in Fon” (199-220). In this Kwa language of Benin, the lexicon of olfaction is overall rather slight, necessitating a variety of strategies for expressing this modality. Smells are put as issuing from a source, by the use of various verbs such as ‘emit’, ‘reject’, and ‘detach’, each having certain hedonic overtones. Perception of odors is expressed by the use of a modality-neutral verb of perception. Not only are odors conceived as reflecting their human sources’ character, but also certain prominent emotions such as love are conventionalized as predicates of smelling.

In Chapter 8, Anthony Backhouse examines “How to Talk about Smell in Japanese” (221-249). He focuses on the vernacular speech register, noting that its core olfactory lexicon consists just of two verbs, with a third being less frequent and more literary. There is also a basic adjective ‘smelly’, for unpleasant odors. This tiny inventory is richly exploited by speakers by means including deverbal nominalization, adjectival and nominal modification, and conventionalized collocations, e.g. with verbs ‘float’ or ‘pervade’. Smell “mimetics” (ideophones/onomatopoeia) are based on two distinct shapes, respectively connoting strong enveloping smells and sharp ones. Literary smell vocabulary is briefly surveyed, showing some additional phenomena such as bound roots and a “suffixoid”, due to the syntax of the Sino-Japanese stratum.

This is followed by Chapter 9, from Amy Pei-jung Lee, “An Overview of Olfactory Expressions in Formosan Languages” (251-276). Here we find a great diversity among these related languages, which represent all twelve branches of Austronesian (eleven being endemic to Taiwan). Some languages such as Amis boast a large olfactory lexicon, whereas at least one, Tsou, lacks such a dedicated vocabulary entirely. Many of these languages share a general phonemic template for smell terms with other Austronesian languages. They typically have a dedicated odorant-oriented morphological structure involving a prefix or proclitic plus a reduplication. Dimensions of ±human, ±polite, and ±visible are exploited to generate a range of specific references and connotations.

Chapter 10 is devoted to “Olfactory Words in Northern Vanuatu: Langue vs. parole” by Alexandre François (277-304). This chapter takes on the common hypothesis that tropical environments will correlate with an abundance of olfactory lexicon, disproving its universality. In a creative elaboration on this thinking, however, the author shows evidence that speakers’ quotidian speech behavior (langue/performance) involves a vastly smaller smell vocabulary than what they produce in focused elicitation tests of their parole/latent competence. Cultural associations of smell are touched on, showing strong associations with the natural environment and with the basic contrast life/death.

Bar Avineri contributes Chapter 11, “Alternating ‘smell’ in Modern Hebrew” (305-342) investigates the varied codings of smell experiencers and, uniquely in this volume, the types of complement clauses that accompany smelling expressions. The alternations thus discovered with the experiencer olfaction verb parallel those occurring with experiencer verbs of other sensory modalities. The historical development of the Hebrew olfaction lexicon is outlined, showing the modern influence of Yiddish.

Chapter 12 brings Virginia Hill’s “Syntactic Patterns for Romanian Olfactive Verbs” (343-368), where a major focus is on the two readings typical for a smelling-verb in this language: that of physical perception and that of cognitive inference. To justify a single lexical entry covering both readings in a predictable way, the author proposes a Chomskyan Minimalism-style “uninterpretable [evid] formal feature” (361).

Next is Chapter 13, “Smelling over Time: The Lexicon of Olfaction from Latin to Italian” (369-403), which is the most diachronically-oriented of the volume’s chapters. A key research question is whether the putative “deodorization” typical of modern Western culture correlates with a decrease in the olfactory lexicon from ancestor- to daughter-language. No such shrinkage is found, but Italian is shown to have become more oriented toward negative hedonic evaluation of odors than Latin was. Considerations of tabooing of concepts considered bad, and of a universal tendency favoring pejoration over melioration, are invoked as possible explanatory factors.

Chapter 14, from Przemysław Staniewski and Adam Golębiowski, asks “To What Extent Can Source-Based Olfactory Verbs be Classified as Copulas? The Case of German and Polish” (403-447), an interesting extension of the already rich literature on copulas. The authors show that olfactory verbs do not always denote physical smelling. When the smell serves as the “basis for inferences and judgements” (441), it is copular in that it establishes an identifying link between the subject and predicate. But all other uses (those of “direct olfactory sensations”, loc. cit.) therefore are non-copular.

The final contribution is Magdalena Zawisławska and Marta Falkowska’s “Typology of Metaphors with the Olfactory Target Domain in the Polish Perfumery Discourse” (449-474). This chapter employs Cognitive Metaphor Theory (CMT) and Fillmorean Frame Semantics to formalize and compare these structures. An unexpected finding is that three “atypical” metaphor types are in fact quite frequent in the genre under study. These are metaphors diverging from the typical “X is Y” formula: “mixed metaphors” containing multiple source frames (e.g. TASTE and SPACE); “entangled” ones (similar to this, but further involving clashing semantic and syntactic structures); and “narrative” ones which are elaborated through a protracted stretch of discourse.

The front matter includes a Table of Contents ([v]-vi), Preface and Acknowledgments ([vii]), and List of Contributors ([ix]-xiii). End matter encompasses a Languages Index ([475]-476) and a Subjects Index ([477]-481).


This volume of studies is an extremely welcome contribution to an area of study that, because it is still in its infancy, is very unfamiliar to most linguists. There is by now a tradition of typologically-oriented collections gathering studies of a range of unrelated languages viewed through the lens of a particular structural dimension, into which the present book fits fairly seamlessly. The heterogeneity of approaches taken here, encompassing the synchronic and the historical across various registers, and a number of theories, adds up to a very fine demonstration of the ways allied scholars can take on a new area of study. Some of the most compelling findings here tend to be those that were evidently unanticipated by the researcher—not that we have much idea yet what to expect in terms of typological regularities in the linguistic domain of olfaction—as with the northern Vanuatu discovery that the relevant lexicon in daily use is dwarfed by what speakers produce under elicitation. Such findings are at least as sure to stimulate further research as are the editors’ (and some contributors’) assiduous notes on areas needing more investigation. The latter include questions about what kinds of interplay exist between evidentiality and olfactory expressions (18-19), and which kinds of smelling-verbs give rise to non-literal meanings in various languages (12).

Typically for so many anthologies of articles, certain potentially helpful features are absent here, such as a table of symbols used (although each chapter does reliably tabulate its own set of abbreviations). More keenly felt is the lack of a volume-encompassing Index of Authors Cited, since several key figures in this nascent subdiscipline are referenced in a number of the contributions (again each chapter has a separate References section).

The editors’ introductory chapter makes use of much the same terminology as the remaining chapters do (e.g. ‘source’ (2)), and that degree of unity is to be praised as a somewhat rare accomplishment, but it probably would be beneficial to add a highlighted set of definitions for those terms, and to fully unify them across the contributions (where e.g. ‘source’ varies with ‘sensory’ and ‘copula’). Definitions should also be added for the rarer words such as ‘ophresaesthemes’ (5), which I was unable to locate in any dictionary.

To some extent the heterogeneity of theoretical stances in this collection might impede crosslinguistic comparison, inasmuch as it deviates from a descriptive goal. Thus the close co-occurrence in Chapter 7 of the Universal Grammar term ‘strict adjacency’ (204) with the traditional English grammar concept of ‘semi-auxiliary’ is somewhat jarring, and it is unclear to me to what extent Chapter 12’s Minimalist Program jargon is explained for the uninitiated, and therefore whether or not it advances typological understanding as much as it might if it were phrased in less-specialized terms.

The Subjects index is really exhaustive for the concepts that it includes; for example, given the relevance of hedonic evaluations to olfaction, it is notable and useful that ‘pleasant’ has by my count 48 page references. Really interesting comparisons and contrasts among the sensory modalities occur in many of the studies, making for example the four page references under ‘synaesthesia’ (plus one for ‘synesthetic metaphor’ and two for ‘weak synesthetic metaphor’) a most welcome springboard for further generalizations. And yet, relevant to this same theme, ‘hierarchy’ lacks indexing (viz. the discussion on 331 of which modalities are the most likely to be lexicalized, and a similar ordering on 195). To continue this idea, another way in which the editorial hand could leave a positive mark might have been if the various tables in several studies, showing that e.g. vision is indeed more fully lexicalized than smell in a number of languages, had been “tagged” with the word ‘hierarchy’.

One fact that emerges from reading this set of studies, but that is not highlighted in the introductory summation, is that a given language may lexicalize olfaction in multiple syntactic classes; e.g. in my native English, we have basic smell lexemes that are adjectival, verbal, nominal, and even interjections (‘pew!’). Several of the chapters seem to default to an implicit view that a given class typifies all of a language’s odor repertoire, e.g. Table 1 of verbs in Germanic (3). Possibly this is a byproduct of a privileging of verbs and predicates as interesting objects of study, over the other word classes that obviously account for a significant proportion of human speech behavior.

This book can be recommended for those researching the many domains in which typological generalizations are being discovered, providing as it does numerous references to work on other sense modalities. Its overall theoretical agnosticism, and the sheer lack of barriers to entry in such a novel area of study, make it well approachable for those at the student level, such that it could provide some of the readings for a seminar on cultural or psycholinguistics, typology, and so forth. In fact its many pointers to needed further research might inspire many honors- and graduate-level research projects.


David Douglas Robertson, PhD, is a consulting linguist who specializes in Pacific Northwest (of North America) Indigenous language history and documentation. His work focally involves the pidgin-creole Chinuk Wawa (Chinook Jargon) and its lexifiers Natítanui (Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan) and ɬəw'ál'məš (Lower Chehalis Salish).

Page Updated: 22-Nov-2021