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16. What about those Eskimo words for snow? (and other myths about language)


This article is from the sci.lang FAQ, by Michael Covington (mcovingt@ai.uga.edu) and Mark Rosenfelder (markrose@zompist.com) with numerous contributions by others.

16. What about those Eskimo words for snow? (and other myths about language)


For more myths and what's really going on, see LANGUAGE MYTHS (1999),
edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (no linguistics knowledge needed).

"The Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow."

This story is constantly being repeated, with various numbers given,
despite the fact that it has no basis at all. No one who repeats this
pseudo-factoid can list the hundreds of words for you, or even cite a
work that does. They just heard it somewhere.

The anthropologist Laura Martin has traced the development of this myth
(including the steady growth in the number of words claimed). Geoffrey
Pullum summarizes her report in THE GREAT ESKIMO VOCABULARY HOAX (1991).

How many words are there really? Well, the Yup'ik language in particular
has about two dozen roots describing snow or things related to snow. This
is not particularly significant; English can amass about the same total:
snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, flurry, avalanche, powder, hardpack,
snowball, snowman, and other derivatives.

The Yup'ik total could be greatly expanded by other derived words, since
the Inuit languages can form hundreds of words from a single root. But
this is true of all words in the language (and indeed of all agglutinative
languages), not just the words for snow.

"There's a town in Appalachia that speaks pure Elizabethan English."

There isn't. All languages, everywhere, are constantly changing. Some
areas speak more conservative dialects, but we know of no case where
people speak exactly as their ancestors spoke centuries ago.

Of course, ancient languages are sometimes revived; biblical Hebrew has
been revived (with some modifications) in modern Israel; and there's a
village in India in which Sanskrit is being taught as an everyday
language. But these are conscious revivals of languages which have
otherwise died out in everyday use, not survivals of living languages.

"Chinese characters directly represent ideas, not spoken words."

Westerners have been taken by this notion for centuries, ever since
missionaries started describing the Chinese writing system. However, it's
quite false. Chinese characters represent specific Chinese words.

(To be precise, almost all characters represent a particular syllable with
a particular meaning; about 10% however represent one syllable of a
particular two-syllable word.)

The vast majority of characters consist of a _phonetic_ giving the
approximate pronunciation of the word, plus a _signific_ giving a clue to
its meaning (thus distinguishing different syllables having different
meanings). As an added difficulty, many of the phonetics are no longer
helpful, because of sound changes since the characters were devised, over
2000 years ago. However, it is estimated that 60% of the phonetics still
give useful information about the character's pronunciation.

To be sure, Japanese (among other languages) uses Chinese characters too,
and it is a very different language from Chinese. However, we must look
at exactly how the Japanese use the Chinese characters. Generally they
borrowed both the characters and the words represented; it's rather as if
when we borrowed words like _psychology_ from Greek, we wrote them in the
Greek alphabet. Native Japanese words are also written using the Chinese
characters for the closest Chinese words: if the Japanese word overlaps
several Chinese words, different characters must be written in different
contexts, according to the meanings in Chinese.

A good demythologizing of common notions about Chinese writing is found in

"German lost out to English as the US's official language by 1 vote."

This entertaining story is also told of Greek, Latin, and even Hebrew.

There was never any such vote. Dennis Baron, in THE ENGLISH ONLY QUESTION
(1990), thinks the legend may have originated with a 1795 vote concerning
a proposal to publish federal laws in German as well as English. At one
point a motion to table discussion (rather than referring the matter back
to committee) was defeated 41-40. The proposal was eventually defeated.

"Sign language isn't really a language."
"ASL is a gestural version of English."

Sign languages are true languages, with vocabularies of thousands of words,
and grammars as complex and sophisticated as those of any other language,
though with fascinating differences from speech. If you think they are
merely pantomime, try watching a mathematics lecture, a poetry reading, or
a religious service conducted in Sign, and see how much you understand.

ASL (American Sign Language) is not an invented system like Esperanto; it
developed gradually and naturally among the Deaf. It has no particular
relation to English; the best demonstration of this is that it is quite
different from British Sign. Curiously enough, it is most closely related
to French Sign Language, due to the influence of Laurent Clerc, who came
from Paris in 1817 to be the first teacher of the Deaf in the US.

ASL is not to be confused with Signed English, which is a word-for-word
signed equivalent of English. Deaf people tend to find it tiring, because
its grammar, like that of spoken languages, is linear, while that of ASL is
primarily spatial.

For more on Sign and the Deaf community, see Oliver Sacks' SEEING VOICES
(1989), or Harlan Lane, WHEN THE MIND HEARS (1984) and THE MASK OF


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