Saturday, December 29, 2007

Did you know... (VI)

... that the Eskimos have 98 words for snow?

Yeah, me too, but it's actually bullshit. One of the more useful side effects of the internet is the busting of urban legends. Though it's useful only if one actually looks for it: Googling 'Eskimo Words for Snow' gives you easily several references that explain not only where the myth comes from, but also what's wrong about it.

The brief explanation is that besides there being several 'Eskimo languages' these are polysynthetic, meaning one can put several nouns with describing adjectives together into one word -- which gives a new word. I.e. there is snow, there is frozen-snow, frozen-and-dirty-snow, frozen-and-dirty-snow-with-a-crust-that-breaks-if-one-steps-on-it, and then there is snow-on-my-outside-chair-waiting-for-springtime.

Reference: Laura Martin, American Anthropologist, Vol. 88, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 418-423

"Eskimo words are the product of extremely synthetic morphology in which all word building is accomplished by multiple suffixation [...] Furthermore, precisely identical "whole" words are unlikely to recur because the particular combination of suffixes used with a "snow" root, or any other, varies by speaker and situation as well as by syntactic role."

The paper is actually quite entertaining in the way she clarifies earlier claims ("A minimal knowledge of Eskimo grammar would have confirmed the relevance of these facts to the central hypotheses [...]" Ouch.)

Either way, I was shocked to see that the above publication is from '86, since I must have read about it repeatedly, and definitely after '86.

The interesting question is much longer will that story to survive? So, take the poll below and answer the question whether you had heard of the story that the Eskimo's have so-and-so-many words for the one English word 'snow' (the precise number of words doesn't matter)

See also: Did you know...


Vladimir Nesov said...

(about the poll)
I heard the story, didn't know it was wrong, but didn't know enough to believe it either.

Uncle Al said...

All that snow and nobody stopped to wonder at individual crystals. Savages.

Phil Warnell said...

About two weeks ago, when we had the snow storm, I was more convinced then ever that there was more then a single word for snow. Of course they were all hyphenated. The word after the hyphen was always snow, with the one preceding also a four letter word. I believe the paper sighted is in the spirit of this observation :-)

Georg said...

I read the book "Fräulein Smillas ...." many years ago,
what I kept in mind, is that the inuit discerned dozens of kinds of snow, a story I considered beeing true. Kinds of snow, not words!
We do have about a dozen of names for snows in German as well, some of them really words of their own, others are synthetic.

Bee said...

Hi Vladimir:

The question in the poll wasn't whether or not you believed it, but whether you were told the wrong story, maybe repeatedly, but not the correct version (or maybe specifically looked for a confirmation). But well, each time I make a poll I figure out something was unclear, it's more complicated than I thought. At least this time I remembered leaving the default option blank.



Neil' said...

I took a course in anthropological linguistics from David Sapir (son of Edward, of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fame.) I have kept up with the subject to some extent. Technically Bee, your correction is apt regarding whether the Eskimos have x number of "words" for snow. But that isn't really what matters. What matters is, they have all those words/phrases (whatever you want to call them) for all those different types of snow, and the rest of us don't have as many. Hope this helps.

PS: Happy Allmess (all holidays/celebrations/observations mixed together) to everyone!

Bee said...

Hi Neil',

Thanks, this is interesting! Though I am very much with Phil above, you'd be surprised how many phrases the English language does have for snow if your car is buried underneath it. Best,


Phil Warnell said...

This is all reminiscent of an old Star Trek episode. In the episode they encountered a species whose entire language was structured on analogies. The problem was that even the universal translator couldn’t translate meaningfully what was being said, since all of what was being referred to, was specific to the history and culture of the species. This could have some relevance in this debate perhaps. Oh this hexagonal lattice of polar covalent bonded pairings of a dual hydrogen and singular oxygen atomic corpuscles can be so hard at times to describe :-)

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Yes, there are indeed many words for snow in lots of languages. Meteorologists, for example, have quite a few, and skiers even more. As Bee notes, however, motorists probably have them all beat.

Neil' said...

Yes, it is true that meteorologists do have a good number of phrases for snow, and some motorists too. To improve my point above: The distinction is put best, that the "average Eskimo" would know and use many phrases/words for snow, but the "average person" in non-arctic cultures would not. That's what anthropology usually compares, the "plain folks" of one culture with the "plain folks" of another. But of course un-plain folks are interesting too, which attracts anthropology in other ways.

That STTNG episode was indeed very interesting, about the alien culture that used specific metaphors instead of inherently arbitrary word forms. One thing we don't find much if at all in human language: the ability to make intermediate sounds to represent intermediate conditions - just about all human words are distinct entities, even if pronunciation is tonal. But on some other planet, they might refer to colors by emitting the sounds along an analogous spectrum, etc.

Timo Suoranta said...

Never heard exactly that story. Meanwhile, isn't that countdown timer supposed to take a little bit longer?

And aren't black holes supposed to be hollow since gravity inside spherical mass cancels out and is zero in the center? Or what did I miss out since I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere?

Bee said...

Hi Timo,

Thanks. I've fixed the counter. Seems though there is a bug in their script, I had to set it counting down to 2009 instead 2008.

About the black holes: that question does absolutely not belong into that thread, and in addition I actually don't know what your question is? Which spherical mass are you talking about, and how is it supposed to be related to a black hole? If you'd manage to stabilize a mass sphere at some radius larger than its Schwarzschildradius (times a number of order one that I can't recall) there would be neither a horizon inside nor a singularity. Does that help?



Chanda in The Disordered Cosmos said...

just as an fyi, it's considered offensive to refer to Inuit and Inuinnaq people as "Eskimos" in Canada. In the US it is more commonly acceptable, although the Inuits of Alaska are actually known to themselves as the Inupiat and Yupik.

Bee said...

Hi Chanda,

Sorry, I didn't know that. I just took the word from the '86 paper I referred to above, it is titled "Eskimo Words for Snow". What is offensive about it? Best,


Chanda in The Disordered Cosmos said...

The name "Eskimo" was given by Europeans who settled on Inuit land so it's not the self-identification of those people. My understanding is that there is some debate as to what the meaning of the word is. It may or may not have had an offensive meaning in the end, but the peoples living within Canada have chosen to self-identify. In the Constitution Act of 1982, Section 35, which refers to the rights of aboriginal people in Canada refers to the "First Nations, Inuit, and Metis" peoples.

Either way, it's just not used in Canada anymore if one wants to be respectful.

ps: I realized you probably didn't know, which is why I figured I should say something.

Bee said...

Thanks and apologies, I will keep it in mind.

L. Frank Morgan said...

But what would the infinitely wise do with their psychobabel if everybody else had notsuccumbed to it----hey, even Einstein who tried hard and long to fully visualize physical reality in mechanical detail never made it, though he got further than anyone else and was able to crudely predict better than anyone else in history.Only a tiny number of other humans ever learned to see what he was seeing and be able to speak and write words about it that were pretty much the same.

The tower of bable in everything human seems eternal because most of us plop out of the womb infinitely wise as matter of ego survival one minute at a time! Science at the physics level (electrons, atoms and molecules) is still real and the least of the babels BUT it requires and ego-less underlying curiosity about it as a whole and a the level of electrons, atoms and molecules-- like when you sneak up close with the mind's eye and look inside all the way to the central black hole nucleus of each----and then, what is the black hole all about in terms of visualized detailed, no action at distance mechanics? And we are never going to be through because the notion of an end to the universe and to physics is prima facie silly! There may be mispelled words here but not one that I don't feel in my guts and mind as real, and I really can see the electron, the atom and the molecule-- up close and personal! Also the minmimum energy quantum as it literally takes an infinity of them to build one electton, But then it takes an infinity of Higgs particles to make one Quantum. So babel right on without end because there is not one!