Monday, 9 July 2007

Mythbusting Monday I: Eskimos Have a Bajillion Words for Snow

I thought it was time for a new weekly meme, so how about Mythbusting Mondays?

I've always found myths and urban legends to be both intriguing and annoying. I think they illustrate how for most people the love of a good story overrides the desire to know what actually happens. I'm sure all my myth-telling friends at school found my corrections equally annoying.

So, let's take this oft-repeated chestnut: Eskimos have x words for snow.

Where x is usually a number between a few dozen and a few hundred. The number listed as x in print media has been observed to steadily increase: it was 4 in 1911, 7 in 1940 according to Sapir and Whorf, 50 by 1978, and 100 by 1984, as listed in the The New York Times.

The concept is cited as an example of how the more central something is to a culture, the more words they will have to describe it. Likewise, arrays and patterns of words we use are claimed to influence the speaker's thought patterns, and conceptualization of the word targets. This is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, named after the linguists Benjamin Sapir and Worf, son of Mogh Benjamin Whorf.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, while having much intuitive appeal, has struggled to find empirical support. However, that is a discussion for another day and with someone who knows more about anthropological linguistics than me. Back to the Eskimo myth.

Deconstructing the myth:

1) There is no single Eskimo language. Wiki lists at least 10. (Also, Eskimo is a very imprecise term.)

2) Eskimo languages do have several words for frozen water. But we forget how many English words we have for frozen water: snow, snowflake, snowdrift, blizzard, sleet, hail, rime, frost, ice, iceberg, glacier, flurry, ice water, slush, permafrost, floe, pack ice, ice shelf, and so on.

3) Eskimo languages are polysynthetic. They do not have set, concrete words as in English. Instead, they string morphemes into new words, much like English speakers string together words to make sentences. As an example, the word Aliikusersuillammassuaanerartassagaluarpaalli is Western Greenlandic (classed as 'Eskimos' for our purposes) and means "However, they will say that he is a great entertainer, but ..." (Fortescue, 1983, p. 97) When a language creates new words on the spot, just as we create sentences on the spot, it is rather meaningless to say they have more words for something. Eskimos can create a near-infinite number of words related to snow in precisely the same way English-speakers can create a near-infinite number of sentences about snow. However, if we compare Eskimo's root morphemes for frozen water with English root words for frozen water, we arrive at a similar number of about 30 for each.

In summary: Eskimo languages have a near-infinite number of words for everything. However, the number of root words for snow are similar to the number English speakers use. There is little evidence that linguistic differences have caused Eskimos and English speakers to form qualitatively different conceptualizations of what snow is.

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