How many X words for Y?

For most, X=Inuit, Y=snow is the easiest solution to that equation – you will find it everywhere and probably hear it once a year in conversation. As it happens, another solution available is X=Welsh, Y=rain:

Although there are words for “spotting”, “big spaced drops”, “short sharp showers”, it is for the more serious rain that the language comes into its own. So there are different single words that translate as “pouring very quickly,” “throwing it down” and “fierce rain.”

Moving up a gear at least in the quantity of water coming down there are additional single words that mean “sheets of rain”, “fountain rain”, “beating rain”, “bucketing rain” and “maximum intensity rain.” The Welsh also have descriptive phrases. The English “It is raining cats and dogs” has the equally baffling but perhaps more colourful Welsh equivalent “It’s raining old women and sticks.”

Of course, the very next page I stumble across blows the whole idea apart. It’s well argued, I agree and support it’s point, but wonder if there isn’t just a little bit of hair splitting over meaning:

First some facts. Eskimo, or more accurately the Yupik and InuitInupiaq families of languages, have a handful of words for snow, ranging from estimates as low as two to a high of a dozen or so. That’s about the same number that can be found in English (snowsleetflurryblizzardslushpowder, etc.). So actually, Yupik and Inuit are not remarkable in the number of words they have for snow.

Part of the reason for the varying numbers is in defining exactly what we mean by word. (Is “snowdrift” one word or two?) Any two counts of the number of different words in anything will vary, sometimes wildly, depending on how the counting is done. Making this problem worse is the fact that Yupik and Inuit are agglutinative languages with many compounded forms, so a small number of roots can seem like a lot of different words. For example, the West Greenlandic word siku, or “sea ice,” is used as the root for sikursuit, “pack ice,” sikuliaq, “new ice,” sikuaq, “thin ice,” and sikurluk, “melting ice.” Note that for each of these examples, the English equivalent is expressed as a simple noun phrase instead of as a compound noun. English speakers can still easily express the concept, even if they don’t use a single word to do so.

But even if Yupik and Inuit had a large number of root words for snow, would this tell us anything interesting? The answer is no. For one thing, large vocabularies in specialized fields are not unusual. My dog Dexter is a beagle, but he could just as well be one of several hundred named breeds, from Affenpinscher to Zapadno-Sibirskaia Laika. Or think of the number of different types of saw: crosscutbandcircularhack,ripjigsaber, etc. Almost any specialized field develops long lists of such hyponyms, and if the Inuit did have a large number of words for snow it wouldn’t tell us anything interesting about them or their language.

The article goes on to talk about the more interesting notion of how language may actually influence ideas:

Guy Deutscher, in his recent book Through the Language Glass, describes the Guugu Yimithirr people of Australia, who have no words for right or left. Instead, they give directions using cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. A Guugu Yimithirr speaker will not only tell you to drive five miles north, as one might in English, but will also ask you to scoot a few inches to the southwest, instead of “to the right,” so he has room to sit down. As a result the Guugu Yimithirr tend to be hyper-aware of their position relative to the points of the compass. They are continually and unconsciously updating their internal compasses. English speakers can learn to do this too; it’s just that we don’t practice the ability, so the ability is not as keenly developed in us. And the converse is true: Guugu Yimithirr people can quickly pick up the concepts of right and left. The language we use doesn’t prevent us from thinking certain thoughts, but it can make thinking in certain modes habitual and faster, and it can cause us to superficially associate ideas with related concepts that use similar words.

Of course, having found all this on twitter, as is so often the case (no doubt the filter bubble effect), soon after this article on the preservation of languages that were endangered caught my attention. At first angered by the opening line offering “saving the world’s threatened languages may seem informed more by nostalgia than need”, all of my personal criticisms were addressed – rescuing languages is valuable because it

touches on fundamental questions about how the brain works, how people express ideas, how societies adapt and how human history has evolved. And of how researchers benefit.

“We’re talking about neuroscientists, we’re talking about computer scientists, we’re definitely talking about historians, anthropologists and biologists in some cases” working on nearly extinct language, Kerttula said.

The National Science Foundation actually has physical scientists working with Inuit people to identify different aspects of ice that aren’t captured in the English language but could inform our understanding of the changing Arctic ecosystem.

“If you don’t understand and don’t have the language for what ice is, what ice should be, you’re not going to understand how it’s changing,” Kerttula said. “Language is critical in recognizing change in your environment.”

Of course, when talking about Eskimos and ice, the more interesting fact that no one ever mentions is that the Arctic as home to so many languages, although I think it’s safe to presume that like Danish/Swedish or even Texan English/Scottish, speakers could understand each other on the whole, despite speaking different langauges:

A few of the researchers will be working with languages spoken by fewer than 30 elderly people. But the designation “endangered,” Kerttula says, isn’t necessarily a measurement of the small number of people still speaking a language. Rather, she said, languages become endangered when children no longer speak them.

Out of 92 languages known to have been used in the Arctic, for example, she says 72 still have some speakers. All but one (Greenlandic) are endangered, the result of the steady encroachment of other dominant languages like English into the domains of public schools and legal systems, television and now the Internet.

“Pretty soon, all of the domains of your life are in English, and the only place where you get to speak your native language is to your grandmother,” Kerttula said. “So how long is that language going to last? It’s basically not.”

And probably the biggest problem with reducing the world to English, is that of the over quarter of a million words that exist, we only use 0.3%, about 7000 words, in 90% of our communication. Thankfully, Save The Words is trying to rectify this, although I agree with Brain Pickings that regrettably the site has gone for sexy-over-shareable – the all flash sites of yesteryear will hopefully die with the onrush of html5 capable sites in the near future.

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