The following laudatory speech was part of the presentation of the Ammodo KNAW Award to Asifa Majid in 2015.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Why is it so difficult for us to describe what we smell? Why do we have words for colours but hardly any for scents? Could it be that during the process of human evolution the important links in the brain between smell centers and language centers have been lost? Or does the absence of a language purely for scents indicate a certain lack in our western upbringing?
Fundamental questions such as these are Asifa Majid’s field. Her work explores how people in different parts of the world transform concepts into language. When searching for answers she is not only applying linguistics but also psychology, cognitive science and ethnography.
Majid is innovative in the way she searches for interactions between our linguistic and our cultural roots. For example, for a long time it was thought that every person has difficulty describing odours. In almost every study conducted by our western universities, subjects proved incapable of correctly identifying roughly half of the smells they were presented with. They could only describe odours by comparing them with other objects. It was as if instead of saying “In the summer the trees are green” we would say “In the summer the trees look like grass”.
Through her innovative fieldwork Majid, who was born in Britain but has spent almost fifteen years working at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, has challenged long held assumptions. By asking people from diverse cultures to encapsulate all kinds of stimuli in words, she found that peoples inhabiting the rainforest really do have all kinds of abstract words for scents, just as we have many words for the colours of the rainbow.
Majid’s work indicates that not only is scent language culturally defined, but so is the language of sounds and symbols. In the Netherlands we speak of ‘high’ and ‘low’ tones, and therefore we raise our voice if a conductor raises her hand. But in countries like Iran or Turkey people speak of ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ sounds, and the conductor therefore needs to come up with an alternative gesture.
Such intriguing examples show how innovative research into more diverse cultures, languages and nations can provide new insights into the relationship between language, culture and the human brain. It prompts us to ask new fundamental questions: Are humans actually able to develop a rich and nuanced language to describe scents? Have we simply forgotten to pass such language on to our children because scent is no longer of importance to us?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The advisory committee was very impressed by the innovative nature of Asifa Majid’s work, and the way in which she is building totally new bridges between very diverse fields. I would like to invite you to show your appreciation for Asifa Majid, winner of an Ammodo KNAW Award for Humanities!