Tracking "words for X" fluctuations

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"Eskimo’s kennen nog maar drie woorden voor sneeuw", De Speld, 3/21/2011 ("Eskimos now have only three words for snow") — subtitle "Klimaatverandering debet aan taalverarming" ("Climate change to blame for language impoverishment"):

Een uitgebreid taalonderzoek onder 1.000 Inuit heeft uitgewezen dat het aantal woorden dat hun taal kent voor sneeuw is gereduceerd tot drie. In 1996, de laatste keer dat een dergelijk onderzoek werd uitgevoerd, waren dit er nog tien. De trend lijkt onomkeerbaar. In 1965 kenden de Eskimo’s nog honderd woorden voor sneeuw.

An extensive linguistic study of 1,000 Inuit has found that the number of words for snow in their language has been reduced to three. In 1996, the last time a similar study was conducted, there were ten. The trend seems to be irreversible: in 1965, the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow.

(Apologies for the poor quality of my translations from Dutch…)

The cause is apparently plain to see:

Flemmo te Gader, linguïst bij de Radboud Universiteit in Nijmegen en verantwoordelijk voor het onderzoek, luidt de noodklok: “Als deze trend zich doorzet hebben de Eskimo’s over tien jaar helemaal geen woorden meer voor sneeuw.” Te Gader wijt de ontwikkeling in de eerste plaats aan de opwarming van de aarde. “Als er minder sneeuw is, heb je er ook minder woorden voor nodig."

Flemmo te Gader, a linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen who was responsible for the research, sounds the alarm bell: "If this trend continues, in ten years the Eskimos will have no more words for snow at all." Te Gader attributes the development primarily to global warming. "If there is less snow, you'll also need fewer words."

Similar statistical tendencies are noted closer to home:

[Irma] De Ruijter [van de universiteit van Harderwijk] vergelijkt de ontwikkelingen met het Nederlands. “Het kan erg hard gaan met een taal. Zo is recent gebleken dat Feyenoordsupporters anno 2011 30% minder woorden hebben voor ‘doelpunt’ dan in 2001.”

[Irma] De Ruijter [of the University of Harderwijk] makes a comparison to developments in Dutch. "A language can change really quickly. Thus it has recently been shown that supporters of Feyenoord had 30% fewer words for 'goal' in 2011 than in 2001."

I hasten to inform our esteemed assembly of earnest commenters that  De Speld is a sort of Dutch version of The Onion.

But all kidding aside, over the years we've documented a number of apparently serious news stories connecting the "words for X" trope to climate change, e.g. "No word for robins", 11/16/2004; "Arctic folk at a loss for words again", 11/23/2004; "Snowclone blindness", 11/19/2005.

And no "words for snow" discussion would be complete without a link to Geoff Pullum's collection of essays The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and to Laura Martin's seminal work, "Eskimo Words for Snow: A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example", American Anthropologist (1986).

[Tip of the hat to Alex Baumans.]

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28 Comments »

  1. Paul Zukowski said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    Had me going … for a while. Great satire!

  2. Nathan said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    A lot of Onion headlines are just zany, transparent satire. The problem here is it's perfectly plausible that a modern media outlet would run this story in earnest.

  3. Toma said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    Sort of like someone reading "A Modest Proposal" and taking it seriously. Would a mark of good satire be that the unintelligent completely fall for it?

  4. Gaston said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    'Het kan erg hard gaan met een taal' means exactly what you think it means, so the question mark may go. On the other hand, 'De Speld' ('The Pin') is with a d, not a t. 'Spelt' means the same as in English.

    [(myl) Thanks -- fixed now. Apparently I've adopted final devoicing into my orthographic memory for Dutch...]

  5. Benjamin said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    @Toma,

    The problem is the existence of Poes.

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Poe

  6. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Now I know why American English has no word for political integrity.

  7. Arjan said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    Nice. Note that there no longer is a University of Harderwijk.

  8. John Lawler said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    @Toma – I had a professor in college who maintained, for exactly that reason, that Machiavelli was the most successful satirist in history.

  9. Matt said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    Imagine the chaos if Australia loses its one word for beer!

  10. army1987 said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    rubbish, trash, garbage, litter, waste, junk…

  11. Marion Crane said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    De Speld is very good at finding headlines and subjects that sound plausible. The first time I came across it in my daily newspaper they had me going for about three articles before I caught on.

    Ironically, the newspaper De Pers (hey, there's a River River syndrome for you), which De Speld appears in, has actually had the 'words for x' thing in a few regular articles, as well.

  12. Chris Waters said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    The statistical "analysis" reminds me of the classic xkcd, "Extrapolating". But of course, this sort of thing should be expected, since English has no word for "misuse of statistics".

  13. Quendus said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    @Chris – That must be because English-speakers never misuse statistics.

  14. Stephen Nicholson said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    I've observed a similar phenomena. I currently live in southern California and it seems here that the number of words for 'smog' has decreased from the 80s.

    But we still have 100 words for 'like'.

  15. Steve Morrison said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    The extrapolation reminded me of Mark Twain's remarks about the length of the Mississippi River.

  16. Tja said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

    Aah, but there are still fifty words for "miserable" in Cowdenbeath.

  17. Frans said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 5:33 am

    [Irma] De Ruijter [van de universiteit van Harderwijk] vergelijkt de ontwikkelingen met het Nederlands. “Het kan erg hard gaan met een taal. Zo is recent gebleken dat Feyenoordsupporters anno 2011 30% minder woorden hebben voor ‘doelpunt’ dan in 2001.”

    [Irma] De Ruijter [of the University of Harderwijk] makes a comparison to developments in Dutch. "A language can change really quickly. Thus it has recently been shown that supporters of Feyenoord had 30% fewer words for 'goal' in 2011 than in 2001."

    I'd rather translate that along the lines of "It can go downhill with a language really quickly."

    I'd say typical contexts are along the lines of "Het kan (erg) hard gaan met drugs/alcohol/gokken." I can also think of a somewhat obvious double entendre involving motorized vehicles.

    Nice. Note that there no longer is a University of Harderwijk.

    Reminds me of all the Klokhuis segments back when I was a kid.

  18. jan said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    Are you open to more examples of "X has no word for Y" or would you rather not deal with it ever again?

    Parade magazine has an interview with Jeff Kinney, the author of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid", and asserts that there is no German word for "wimpy" so the title is changed to "I'm surrounded by Idiots".

    Off to Babelfish we go…

    I entered…
    wuss
    wimp
    wimpy
    sissy

    And I got…

    wimpy Weichling des wuss Wimp

  19. Olga said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    Weichei. Perfectly good German word for (male) wimps, wusses, and sissies. I can see why they wouldn't use it in the title of a children's book.

  20. Frans said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

    Weichei. Perfectly good German word for (male) wimps, wusses, and sissies. I can see why they wouldn't use it in the title of a children's book.

    It doesn't strike me as being that bad, is it? Wimp isn't exactly a nice word either, at any rate. Anyway, what about Memme?

  21. Tyrone Slothrop said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    For actual research and scholarship on Inuit terms for "snow" and "ice" I would suggest:

    Krupnik, Igor & Ludger Müller-Wille. 2010. “Franz Boas and Inuktitut Terminology for Ice and Snow: From the emergence of the field to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax””. SIKU: Knowing our Ice: Documenting Inuit sea ice knowledge and use. (eds. Krupnik et al.) Dordrecht: Springer. 377–400.

    For a useful review of the discussions concerning the so-called "Eskimo word for snow hoax" see:

    Cichocki, Piotr and Marcin Kilarski.
    2010. “On ‘Eskimo Words for Snow’: The life cycle of a linguistic misconception.” Historiographia Linguistica. 37(3): 341-377.

    As they note, the problem with much of the discussion concerning the so-called "Eskimo word for snow hoax," was the lack of attention both to the writings of Franz Boas and Benjamin Whorf and to an actual investigation of Inuit and other "Eskimo" languages.

  22. maidhc said,

    March 24, 2011 @ 1:38 am

    Steve Morrison: Not only the length of the Mississippi, but its width.

    Twain in several books describes the Mississippi at Hannibal MO, where he grew up, as being a "mile wide".

    I was in Hannibal last summer and I measured the width of the Mississippi at Hannibal, both with the car odometer and subsequently on Google Earth, and it is more like half a mile wide.

  23. Brett said,

    March 24, 2011 @ 6:57 am

    @maidhc: Historically, I think the width of the Mississippi was subject to a lot of temporal variation (something Twain also alluded to in some passages). Now however, the river has fixed (often concrete) boundaries, and it no longer swells to that full mile width in the summers.

  24. gnaddrig said,

    March 24, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    @ Frans: On the one hand you are right, Weichei is not a bad word in the sense of strong language, but nevertheless you wouldn't want to use it in a children's book for the simple reason that then you would have to tell children what a 'Weichei' is ('Weichei' means 'soft testicles') and why having soft testicles is considered to be contemptible. I guess 'grow a pair' falls into the same category, you wouldn't use that around children either. Bad is not the problem here, but subject matter.

    Possible translations that could be used in a children's book would be Memme (wuss, coward), Heulsuse (crybaby), or Jammerlappen (cissy, someone whiny). Maybe even Warmduscher – someone who prefers to take warm showers instead of cold. We all know that 'real man' always take ice cold showers…

  25. Frans said,

    March 25, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    @gnaddrig:
    I always thought it referred to how easy it is to break an egg: a metaphorical reference to how easy it would be to break a Weichei's confidence. I realize that Eier doubles as slang for balls[1], but I guess I just didn't make the connection, possibly because of how egg is used in Dutch. As far as I'm aware eggs doesn't double as slang for balls in Dutch, though I'm sure there's some local vernacular out there that would prove me wrong.

    In Dutch there's the expression "een zacht eitje." Saying "he's a soft egg" means "he's a wuss/wimp," and there's another usage, "it's a soft egg," meaning "it's a piece of cake" (as in "it's easy", but translating an idiom with another certainly seems more appropriate). In reference to an actual egg, soft egg is short for soft-boiled egg. Perhaps real men eat it either raw or hard boiled?

    [1] I realize that I should probably say testicles, because balls is slang for testicles, but I'm not trying to be formal here.

  26. Euro language teacher said,

    March 25, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    English comes out ahead as usual.

    snowbigdeal — fuhgeddaboudid
    itsnowornever — capture the beauty of a falling flake
    donteattheyellowsnow — too late, your toddler already did

  27. gnaddrig said,

    March 26, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    @ Frans: This is interesting. I haven't heard of an expression like "een zacht eitje" in the meaning "it's a piece of cake" in German. But if this is common in Dutch it does explain the misunderstanding regarding "Weichei". This goes to show again how careful you have to be when using idiomatic expressions in foreign languages. Myself, I've certainly put my foot in it a couple of times…

  28. On Balls | The One with the Thoughts of Frans said,

    April 3, 2011 @ 5:25 am

    [...] author of some book claimed that German has no word for wimp. Someone else replied that Weichei carries the load perfectly, but that it's not something [...]

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