Smell terms are not rara: A semantic investigation of odor vocabulary in Thai

Ewelina Wnuk
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  • Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, WC1H 0BW, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
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, Rujiwan Laophairoj and Asifa Majid
  • Department of Psychology, University of York, York, YO10 5DD, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
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Abstract

Large lexica of basic smell terms are considered to be restricted to a handful of small languages of non-industrialized societies. Accordingly, they are thought to belong to the sphere of rara within lexical typology (Plank 2001. Das grammatische Raritätenkabinett. Konstanz: University of Konstanz. https://typo.uni-konstanz.de/rara/intro/index.php (accessed 3 October 2017)). However, smell lexica might in fact be more common than previously suggested. In this article, we discuss the case of Thai – a language with a population of tens of millions of speakers – which defies this assumption. We show Thai has a sizeable lexicon of terms for olfactory qualities, and investigate their semantics using a multi-method approach. In particular, we demonstrate a novel use of exemplar listing where – in addition to giving insights into the terms’ extensions – exemplar data is used to reveal the structure of the lexicon. Additionally, we use corpus data to provide complementary information on meaning and usage, thereby showing the advantage of multi-method approaches. Overall, the findings suggest smell lexica are not rara, and their distribution in the world’s languages goes beyond the stereotypical cases of languages spoken by small-scale societies.

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