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The Scent of Language and Social Synaesthesia at Rome

From: Classical World
Volume 101, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 159-171 | 10.1353/clw.2008.0009



In Roman authors like Cicero and Quintilian language itself may be described as having an odor. In its synaesthetic blending of senses, this image defies "linguistic" expectations but confirms the observation of sensorial anthropology that sense-perception varies across cultures. The image is thus interpretable as an example of how Romans could use all sense-perceptual data, including natural odors and artificial scents, to determine one's origins and position in a social hierarchy. In addition to complicating the definition of "language" in Roman antiquity, the image thus suggests understanding odors as "osmetic" or "osmemic," depending on their meaningfulness in a given cultural context.