SPLTRAK Abstract Submission

How Language And Cognition Shape Olfaction




Theresa White
Le Moyne College, , ,

Language is a key feature of cognition that allows thoughts to be externally expressed.  Linguistic relativism asks whether the structure of language also modifies thought.  So, do people who speak languages that employ grammatical gender think of some objects as more masculine or feminine than people who speak languages that do not have that linguistic convention?  Odorants are unique stimuli for examining this question, as they have been described as having gender as a central dimension.  In addition, odorants are paradoxically both difficult to label and highly influenced by labels.  In the present study, French-Canadian bilinguals and native English speakers described a set of odorants that varied systematically in grammatical gender and in anthropomorphized semantic gender (determined via pilot with English speakers).  The odorants were presented to participants in bottles that were labeled in English, and participants were unaware as to the purpose of the study.  Analysis of the implicit femininity contained in French participants’ descriptions of the odorants that were mismatched for grammatical and semantic gender seemed to show a tendency for French speakers to produce language consistent with grammatical gender; however, analyses of the English speakers indicated a similar effect.  These results indicate that a strong influence of semantic gender pervaded both speaker groups, and suggest that in a bilingual culture, French speakers may have influenced the anthropomorphism associated with odorants in a way that is consistent with language.