smell and taste

Thu Apr 23 15:57:07 UTC 1998

In response to Manfred's interesting observation regarding
taste / smell asymmetry:  it certainly isn't universal.

Hebrew has half:  from the root _t-9-m_ "taste" you can
derive _ta9im_ "tasty".  But there simply isn't any
corresponding derivation from the root _r-y-H_ "smell":
"Smelly" is _masriaH_, or "stinky".  (Though it was
only when I saw what I had just written on the screen
that I realized that the root for "stink" is actually
_s-r-H_.  Synchronically this is *not* related to
_r-y-H_; there hasn't been an _s_ inflection in
Semitic for the last few thousand years.  But, way
back in Afroasiatic, the two are most probably related,
via the process of expansion of biconsonantal roots
to triconsonantal ones that characterized the
development from Afroasiatic to Semitic.  Originally,
you might have had biconsonantal r_H -- as manifest
also in Modern Hebrew _ruaH_ "wind, spirit":  add a
_y_ in the middle and you get _r-y-H_ "smell", add an
_s_ at the beginning and you end up with _s-r-H_
"stink".  So it looks like the Ancient Middle East or
North Africa upholds Manfred's generalization after
all.  Though I'm no comparativist and I have no idea
if this holds water.)

And as for the colloquial variants of Malay / Indonesian
that I'm familiar with, there there is nothing of the
sort.  To begin with, there is simply no word whose
meaning is limited to "taste":  _rasa_, which means
"taste", also means "feel" and by extension even "think".
"Tasty" is expressed by primitive lexical items, such
as _enak_ in Riau Indonesian, _sedap_ in Kuala Lumpur
Malay, and even these are much broader in their usages,
and can refer to any pleasurable sensory experience --
raising the question what belongs in the "dictionary"
of Malay / Indonesian and what is better characterizable
as a straightforward metaphorical extension.  As for
smell, the act of smelling is lexicalized as _cium_,
which also means ... "kiss" (comparativists -- is this
a borrowing from some Indo-European Indic language?).
I am not familiar with any word corresponding to the
abstract English noun "smell" though.  But for the
pleasurable and unpleasant varieties, Malay / Indonesian
has _wangi_ "fragrant" (but much less learned than its
English gloss), and _bau_ and _busuk_ "stinky".  So
here it looks like Manfred's generalization doesn't

But this is something that calls for lots more
cross-linguistic mapping out.

David Gil
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

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