Odor naming is difficult, even for wine and coffee experts


Odor naming is difficult for people, but recent cross-cultural research suggests this difficulty is culture-specific. Jahai speakers (hunter-gatherers from the Malay Peninsula) name odors as consistently as colors, and much better than English speakers (Majid & Burenhult, 2014). In Jahai the linguistic advantage for smells correlates with a cultural interest in odors. Here we ask whether sub-cultures in the West with odor expertise also show superior odor naming. We tested wine and coffee experts (who have specialized odor training) in an odor naming task. Both wine and coffee experts were no more accurate or consistent than novices when naming odors. Although there were small differences in naming strategies, experts and non-experts alike relied overwhelmingly on source-based descriptions. So the specific language experts speak continues to constrain their ability to express odors. This suggests expertise alone is not sufficient to overcome the limits of language in the domain of smell.

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