Can We have a Scent Language?

“The scent of their arrival” paints a portrait of a language based on scent. Pinker lays out some basic components of human language. Do you think a scent language could have all of those components? Why or why not? 

I don’t think a scent language could have all of the basic components of human language and the main reason is because of syntax. First, it would be important to understand that a scent language would really depend on the air flow and the size of the chemicals in order to send a signal. Words can have different smells and to create a sentence, aliens can produce several scents during a short period of time. However, let’s say that there is an event and an alien wants to say that “the cat saw that the dog was running low on cereal”. There has to be a way to explain who is doing the seen. English uses word order and phrase order to understand what’s the doer in a sentence. Other languages use word endings. It is not clear to me how you will set this one up with scent because when you produce multiple scents, you can’t guarantee the order of smells that the alien will receive based on the vagaries of airflow. In other words, I think there would be some mechanical problems because the smell produced would depend on the air flow and the size of the molecule produces. The only way to make it happen is if aliens can combine the chemicals together as a sentence in one molecule that is made out of small pieces. Then, the molecule would break down into different parts. In other words, aliens would be turning molecules into a language system but I don’t think it would be plausible.

In class, we’ve discussed generalization and the idea that “every fire is different but they’re all hot.” For alien cognition, even if their perception is different from ours, their core structure may be very similar. They may see through sonar but that doesn’t mean that they won’t see objects. Unless if their world is very different. Then, the simplification that worked for us may not work for them. Also, there are other ways to be smarter. Objects are very good simplifications and we can do a lot of great generalizations with them. However, when humans tried to move away from discrete concepts like objects by doing mathematical models or models of cognition that treated the world more realistically, such as neural network, that didn’t work well. There could be a smarter way for modeling the world but we haven’t discovered it yet. In other words, aliens are more likely to have a different subjective experience on the world where it feels different being a Martian in comparison of being human. They may have different beliefs because they may have access to different facts than what we have but their facts would be about objects and basic concepts that we have too.