Twenty words for hoax

Some things you just take for granted. I’m as skeptical as the next guy, maybe more so, but even I can’t spend my life trying to disprove everything I see.

So I was both surprised and bummed when I found out that Eskimos don’t actually have 20 words for snow.

In fact, the Inuit language has a few root words for things like snow, slush, and blizzard. In fact they have about the same number of these words as in English. Then, because Inuit is polysynthetic, you can tack on almost anything else to that root word.

The example from the article above is:

You would take the “snowflake” root qani- (or the “fish” root or whatever); add a visual similarity postbase to get a stem meaning “looking like ____”; add a quantity postbase to get a stem meaning “stuff looking like ____”; add an augmentative postbase to get a stem meaning “lots of stuff looking like ____”; add another postbase to get a stem meaning “gathering lots of stuff looking like ____”; add yet another postbase to get a stem meaning “peripatetically gathering up lots of stuff looking like ____”; and then inflect the whole thing as a verb in the 3rd-person plural subject 3rd-person singular object past tense form; and you’re done. Astounding. One word to express a whole sentence.

But that doesn’t count because the intent of the saying is that, when it comes to snow, Eskimos can detect subtle gradation and nuance, and they had to describe this in words to adapt to their harsh environment. It’s used as the quintessential example of language relativism, wherein the need for cognition of special concepts results in new words, and conversely that growing up with a certain language affects the kinds of things you can think about and express.

But it’s not true at all for Eskimos. They have about the same number of words for snow as we have. They just chose to add modifiers without adding spaces and some anthropologist (OK, an important anthropologist, but that makes it worse) decided to make a claim that most people don’t know enough to argue.

But don’t despair, I have a fix! (You shouldn’t complain about something unless you have a proposal for a fix, right?)

The Jews have 20 words for “penis.” I can think of 8 just off the top of my head: putz, schmuck, schmendrick, schmeckel, schlong, schmohock, petseleh, and schvantz. There’s probably more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002933144523 Joshua Ellinger

    Did you know that new parents have 20 words for poop?