The brown scent of coffee: Doctoral student investigates the language of smells

Can you smell it too, the brown scent of coffee or the black odour of smoke? Julia Salzinger is a doctoral student at the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Klagenfurt and is investigating the expressions we use to describe smells in English.

“For us, smells are something that we perceive but don’t often talk about. We usually try to avoid odours. That is also reflected in our language,” says Julia Salzinger, who we met for an online interview. Julia Salzinger lives in Bochum in Germany and is conducting her doctoral studies in Klagenfurt remotely. She recently received a doctoral thesis scholarship from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities & Education for her work. For the material that the linguist works with, she uses the Corpus of Contemporary American English; the biggest corpus of American English containing one billion words. It covers all genres – from spoken to academic language, from media language to literary language. Here, Julia Salzinger searches for adjectives that precede the term smell and is only able to find a limited number of results.

“The adjectives used specifically for odours are rare in English,” Julia Salzinger explains and continues: “We usually use terms like sweet smell or sour smell. Up to now, the phrases have been described as synaesthetic metaphors, but this implies that a transfer of sensory content takes place. However, my research shows that no transfer takes place, but rather that the sensory perceptions occur in parallel, as we know from smelling and tasting, and that we express this linguistically by combining them in a phrase.” This biological and physical link between the senses is also expressed in language.When it comes to the brown smell of coffee, the following addition is essential: In contrast to visual perception, an odour cannot be brown, but the smell of coffee is known throughout the world.

When we ask whether other languages are similarly devoid of adjectives for odours, Julia Salzinger explains: “No, it doesn’t apply to all peoples, because some have a stronger connection to odours and these play a greater role there. If you live in the jungle and can’t see far into the distance, you tend to focus on smells.” Julia was particularly interested in the fact that the data material for the English language is somewhat sparse: “I’m interested in how you express something for which you have no vocabulary.”

Julia Salzinger is writing her doctoral thesis in her spare time: “I’m doing this because I find the topic fascinating and I’d really like to know what the end result will be.” She works at the University of Bochum, where she supervises the language tandems for the STEM subjects. The aim is to bring people in these subjects into dialogue with each other so that they can develop the language skills that are right for them. She also teaches specialised English in the field of technology. Alexander Onysko, Professor at the Department of English and American Studies, who taught at the University of Bochum for a while, introduced her to the University of Klagenfurt. She contacted him regarding her doctoral thesis and in him she found a supervisor “who is a tremendous supporter of the topic, even from a distance.”

A few words with … Julia Salzinger

Why do you enjoy research?

Because it allows you to look at a topic in depth, to examine it from all angles, to discover completely new nuances or patterns in everyday language that you use every day but rarely notice. For example, you realise how powerful language can be, both in a positive and negative sense.

What is the first thing you do in the office each morning?

Coffee or tea and a quick e-mail check.

Do you go on proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

Yes, I go on real holidays and don’t think about work, but as a linguist, you always stumble across interesting linguistic phenomena in other countries that immediately inspire you.

What makes you furious?

Intolerance and ignorance.

And what calms you down?

Making music: I have been performing as a viola player in various ensembles for many years.

Who is your role model in science?

Any person, regardless of academic degree and title, who is willing to support colleagues and talk to young academics at eye level in the same way as they talk to established scholars.

What are you afraid of?

The rise of the right in many parts of the world.

What are you looking forward to?

My short trips to Klagenfurt. Even though I don’t live there, it feels like a second home, as I truly feel at ease there.