The sci.lang FAQ: 16


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

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[--markrose]

"The Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow."
"There's a town in Appalachia that speaks pure Elizabethan English."
"Chinese characters directly represent ideas, not spoken words."
"German lost out to English as the US's official language by 1 vote."
"Sign language isn't really a 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 pseudo-factoid has been circulating for years like an e-mail chain letter. People cite it not because they know anything about Eskimo, but because they heard or read it somewhere.

The anthropologist Laura Martin has traced the development of this myth (including the steady growth in the number of words claimed-- in the earliest citations it's just four or seven words). Geoffrey Pullum summarizes her report in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991).

Still, how many words are there?

It depends on what you mean by words. The Eskimo (Inuit and Yup'ik) languages are agglutinative and polysynthetic-- which means that hundreds of words can be formed from any root in the language, not just words meaning 'snow'.

Maybe we should leave all those suffixes out of the picture, and just consider roots and derived words. You'll certainly find hundreds of snow words... but the same is true of English. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 125 compounds of the word 'snow' alone.

Probably the fairest comparison is to look at roots. The Yup'ik language in particular has about two dozen roots describing snow or things related to snow. But then English has quite a few itself: snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, flurry, avalanche, powder, drift, firn, poudre, etc. Some of these have non-snow-related meanings; but then so do some of the Yup'ik words.

"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 many 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 (also called a radical) 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 The Chinese Language: Fact And Fantasy, by John DeFrancis (1984).

"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).


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