Is there any language where there exist words for smells not derived or already disconnected from words for smelling objects?

For instance, those derived from verbs, of obscure etymology, or not having the corresponding noun in the contemporary language?

For other feelings there are:

bitter - from a verb

yellow - gholtos apparently already meant yellow color at PIE stage

sweet - su̯ea̯dus already meant "sweet" in PIE

red - e̯roudhros already meant "red" in PIE

sour - from PIE word for cheese seuros, but long forgotten since.

I am looking for words meaning particular smells, not just "good smell" or "bad smell".

  • 1
    Your last sentence makes sense, but I have no idea what you're trying to say with your first two sentences!
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 15, 2014 at 16:33
  • 2
    @curiousdannii I suspect there are no special words for smells in any language except "smell of X" because the number of various smell receptors is very high (hundreds of various receptors) compared to the limited number of basic tastes and colors. So each object usually has own smell and they usually do not coincide. I want to prove or disprove the conjecture.
    – Anixx
    Dec 15, 2014 at 16:39
  • True for anybody who knows some science there are technically only five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami, salt), but for a few billion other people there's a vast number, because except for anosmics we experience taste as a combination of inputs from the tongue and nose, but are not aware of it. Jan 22, 2015 at 12:21
  • @hippietrail "umami" is not a basic taste. It was popularized, I think, due to marketing considerations. It is an "exstended" taste, like say, taste of strawberry or a conifer.
    – Anixx
    Jan 22, 2015 at 12:34
  • 1
    So you are saying that basically everybody in the world, when they talk about taste are only talking about sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and combinations of those? If so, source please. Jan 22, 2015 at 12:43

3 Answers 3


According to research by Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhult, there are some languages that use more abstract odor words, see Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language. It appears that speakers of Jahai can describe odors with the same ease as colors: “Majid and Burenhult found that Jahai speakers could name odors with the same conciseness and level of agreement as colors, but English speakers struggled to name odors.”

At Warum Gerüche so unbeschreiblich sind (srf.ch), there is an example word from Jahai: pʔus describes the odor that is found in old rice, boiled cabbage, mushrooms and some hornbill birds.

Majid and Burenhult speculate that the ability of Jahai speakers to precisely name odors is determined by their culture. It comes from the importance of the odors in their everyday life as hunters and gatherers in the Malay Peninsula rainforest.


English has at least a couple of words that seem to meet your criteria (the definitions below are from American Heritage Dictionary):

pungent "Affecting the organs of taste or smell with a sharp acrid sensation", from Latin pungens, participle of pungere "to sting"

musty "Stale or moldy in odor or taste", etymology unknown but possibly based on moist (= "wet")

  • Does pungent just mean any strong smell? Or maybe it means even not smell, but the activation of pain receptors (like in "hot" food)?
    – Anixx
    Jan 22, 2015 at 11:22
  • It does refer to smells -- e.g. the smell of spices such as cinnamon could be described as "pungent".
    – user8017
    Jan 22, 2015 at 11:27
  • so it means just any strong smell, not specific?
    – Anixx
    Jan 22, 2015 at 11:27
  • Yes, any "sharp" smell, as the definition above says.
    – user8017
    Jan 22, 2015 at 11:32
  • 1
    I don't understand why it would not count. You wrote, "I am looking for words meaning particular smells, not just 'good smell' or 'bad smell'". The word pungent refers to a specific type of smell (sharp/strong) and it does not mean "good-" or "bad smelling".
    – user8017
    Jan 22, 2015 at 12:32

In Norwegian you could use two of the same words you used for tastes; sweet(søt) and sour(sur).

You could in fact use that to describe several of the senses:

Det smaker søtt. (It tastes sweet). Det smaker surt. (It tastes sour).

Det lukter søtt. (It smells sweet). Det lukter surt. (It smells sour).

Det høres surt. (It hears sour).

Det ser søtt ut. (It looks sweet). Det ser surt ut. (It looks sour).

This shows me that ( at least for Norwegian) this question is closely related to the general understanding of adjectives and adverbs.

  • What does it mean in Norwegian, "It smells sweet"? Does it mean just it smells good or any specific smell?
    – Anixx
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:11
  • I think "sour" is the most protoypic of the two. Yes, "sour" could mean both general and specific. However "meaning" of "smell", is conceptually a bit difficult. Would that mean that most of the language speakers would use that word, when smelling a certain smell? And the other way around, if faced with the same smell, would they use the same word for describing it? "Sour" would probably meet both of these criterias with the smell of used socks.
    – Flying
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:33
  • Well in Russian I have also encountered "it smells sour", but it seems all people who say so use it arbitrarily, to refer different things, usually either things tasting sour or outdated things like rotten/outdated food (in Russian "sour" is synonym to "rotten", so "smelling sour" means just "it smells as if it were rotten/outdated"). I still cannot figure up any specific smell that people would refer to as "sour" because different kinds of rotten food smell differently.
    – Anixx
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:40
  • What is the difference then between the use of "sour" in taste and smell? Isn't both displaying the same relationship between general and specific?
    – Flying
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:44
  • "Sour" regarding taste means specific thing, the taste of an acid. But acids usually have no smell or have different smells so things that taste sour may have totally different smells. The outdated things while often tasting sour because of acids produced by bacteria (like outdated milk), still do not have a common smelling substance and can smell differently.
    – Anixx
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.