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Odor Color Words1

Do you think the smell of lemon is yellow and that of lime green? Or are both of these smells the same color? Studies have shown that people often agree as to what colors go with odors, but it is unclear how exactly they come to create these associations. One possibility is they could be using language–they label the odors they smell and select a color matching with their label. To see whether this is true, we investigated odor-color associations among speakers of three different languages: Dutch, Thai and Maniq (a language spoken by a small hunter-gatherer community in Thailand). These groups differ in the way they describe odors: Dutch speakers usually describe the odor object (e.g smells like banana), whereas Thai and Maniq speakers (also) use abstract smell terms, i.e. words that describe a smell quality (e.g. musty). We found that people chose different colors depending on the labels they used to describe the odors: When people described the odor with an object, they more often chose colors matching the odor object (e.g. peanut butter odor – brown) than when they used smell terms (e.g., musty odor — ? color). They especially chose matching colors when they correctly identified the object. This suggests that people indeed use language to form odor-color associations.

De Valk, J. M., Wnuk, E., Huisman, J. L., & Majid, A. (2016). Odor–color associations differ with verbal descriptors for odors: A comparison of three linguistically diverse groups. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1-9.

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