Pop-Whorfianism in the comics again

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Alex Baumans and Eric Lechner independently sent in copies of today's Speed Bump, for our "Words for X" file:


  1. Chris Crawford said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Would you resolve for me the contradictory information I have encountered regarding the size of the Inuit vocabulary related to solid water in its many forms? I have read claims that it is in fact larger than similar vocabularies for temperate-zone peoples, and I have read claims that it is no larger than such vocabularies. I am willing to bet that it's larger than the similar vocabularies for Amazon basin languages. Indeed, it might be interesting to prepare a scatter diagram showing size of this vocabulary on the vertical and latitude of the language group on the horizontal; I would expect (with an exception for high-altitude languages) a positive correlation.

    In any event, what are the facts of the matter?

    [(myl) Some of the facts of the matter are discussed here.]

  2. Bobbie said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    I think Chris is missing the point of the joke. It's not about quanitifcation and the actual size of the Inuit vocabulary. It's about the large corpus of mythoolgy that seems to have sprung up about those estimates of words for snow.
    I am sure there are more words for solid water in the Inuit language than there are for Amazon basin cultures….. and more words for poisonous animals and plants in the Amazon vocabularies….. But the laughable part is the perpetuation of the supposed "facts" and the widespread assumption that those "facts" are true.

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    The joke is all Mark's (Whorf-Sapir_hypothesis), though its humor does indeed derive from a kind of mythology.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    And it's especially funny in light of the previous thread, wherein a single word ("fuck") is shown to have over 100 meanings, leading one to suspect that with a sophisticated grammar and a mere handful of words, one could affectively express the full range of ideas known to our species.

  5. John P said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    The number 100 is suspiciously round, like the 150 people who die each year from anaphylactic shock (a completely bogus statistic). Why are those who make up numbers and those who repeat them so lazy? Get a random number generator and learn how to use it!

  6. Grep Agni said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    Rapid topic drift 'R' us!

    John P:
    The cartoon says "over 100," implying that the number is not, in fact, exactly 100. "More than 117 words for lawn" looks a bit strange.

  7. Chris Crawford said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Thanks for the link with the explanation. I think that explanation makes it clear that Inuit is not a good test for the larger issue of vocabulary representing perceptual reality. It is obvious that, as Bobbie put it "I am sure there are more words for solid water in the Inuit language than there are for Amazon basin cultures….. and more words for poisonous animals and plants in the Amazon vocabularies….."

    How much research has been carried out on this question? It should be easy to establish the boolean aspect of this relationship: Polynesian languages should have no word for glacier, and Finnish should have no original word for "sandy desert" or "tsunami". But have we any evidence regarding concepts that are experienced to varying degrees by most language groups? Is this question so completely muddied by the point made in the link (that languages can build compound words) as to make my question impossible to answer clearly?

    [(myl) In general, vocabulary is not an especially good "leading indicator" of cultural differences, first because phrasal collocations (as well as compounds) are used to name things, and second because words are generally created or borrowed as soon as a need for them arises.

    So indeed, there was no word in (languages ancestral to) English for "camel" or "astronaut" until English speakers came into contact with those concepts; but the lack of such words didn't stop anyone from apprehending the concepts as soon as there was any reason to do so. Similarly, Somali may have 46 words for camel, and this is surely connected to the large camel population of that unhappy country; but the word count doesn't tell us much that the camel count didn't. (The details of the word meanings may be culturally interesting, but that's another story.)

    That's why the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was about morphological categories rather than about word stock. During the past decade, there's been some evidence in both directions on this, but it's not nothing to do with how many words you have (or don't have) for X.

    Paul Kay and his colleagues have some interesting results about (subtle but persuasive) effects on color perception, at least in half of the brain, but again, this is not much like the pop "words for X" stories, which tend to suffer from being false, tendentious, and foolish.]

  8. Ellen K. said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    Maybe, Chris, the question would be about roots. Although I'm not sure how meaningful the answer would be.

  9. Sili said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    "More than 117" doesn't look odd to a Dane.

    For some bizarre reason "umpteen" is "117" in Danish.

    (Generic date in the past is "seventeen hundred cabbage" ("the year dot" according to my dictionary – yes, it does indeed list "syttenhundredehvidkål").)

  10. kip said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    I came up with some words for "lawn." Not all are interchangable with lawn in all cases, but I think they are all interchangeable with it in at least some cases: lawn, yard, grass, green, field, turf, lot, sod, court, promenade, plain, plot, terrace, grassland. I guess if we were liberal with compound words we could throw in these: frontyard, backyard, courtyard. I'm sure there are more, but I have work to do. :)

  11. peter said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Sili said (July 29, 2009 @ 2:57 pm):

    "For some bizarre reason "umpteen" is "117″ in Danish."

    I am reminded of the difficulty I once had explaining the meaning of the English word "widget" to a German speaker.

  12. Chris Crawford said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    Thanks for the many links to material that expands on these concepts. I followed up on every one, and followed some second-order links as well, and I have gathered a lot of information that now I must digest. Rest assured, I'll be back with more stupid questions later! ;-)

  13. Craig said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    To the best of my recollection, trente-six (36) is the arbitrary number used in French for "a whole lot", as in "trente-six choses à faire".

    In German, "umpteen" is zig.

  14. Tim said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 1:43 am

    For great justice.

    Coïncidentally, today's Diesel Sweeties makes reference to the Eskimo/snow concept, as well.

  15. D.O. said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    In Russian, an arbitrarily large number can be 7, 40, and all sorts of power of 10. Let's list the numbers of this sort. Zig and umpteen do not count.

  16. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    from JC Dill:

    In rec.arts.comics.strips Paul wrote:

    >Mike Beede (beede@thunderlobster.com) wrote in

    >>In article h4lmed$l0h$1@blue.rahul.net, Sherwood Harrington (sherwoodNO@SPAMrahul.net) wrote:

    >>>Mike Beede (beede@thunderlobster.com) wrote:

    >>>>>To be safe, I suggest no political discussion for a while. Is there anything else we can talk about?

    >>>>Eskimos. We could talk about Eskimos.

    >>Did you know they have thirty-seven words for politics?

    >But they all translate to things like "whale poop," "walrus poop," "moose poop," etc.

  17. Emily said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    @D. O.: A very informal suggests that the bar for "arbitrary big number" may have risen over time. In the Bible, 40 plays that role; nowadays you're more likely to hear "a million billion"(or made-up words based on the same derivation, like "gazillion"). For the purposes of making pseudo-Whorfian statements about other people's vocabulary, 50-100 seems about right.

  18. Oop said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    "Finnish should have no original word for "sandy desert" or "tsunami"

    Can't say much about Finnish, but Estonian (just a little southwards and quite related) have an original word for desert ("kõrb"). Although the same root was earlier used to denote woodlands ("kõrvemaa"), so it can be considered a second-hand use.

    Usual "arbitrary big numbers" in Estonian are "musttuhat" ("black thousand") and "mustmiljon" ("black million"). "Mustsada" ("black hundred"), on the other hand, is what a Russian nationalist movement around 1905 was called. Go figure.

  19. 2009-07-31 Spike activity | Psychology Blog said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    […] Log finds a funny comic strip on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and […]

  20. abd_ul_waajid said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    I found it interesting that the cartoonist has his character say "suburban white males", since being male has nothing to do with it (nobody ever says, "Did you know that Eskimo men have more than a million words for snow?"). I think that simply saying "white people" or "whites" would have given it an uncomfortable racialist tone, while "white males" has a comfortably sociological tone; but, I'm not sure why the addition of "males" makes a significant difference. The concept that the cartoonist really wants is "Anglophone", but I guess he didn't find a comfortable way to put it. After all, it's not "Eskimos" that have a certain number of words for snow, but the Eskimo languages. I imagine there are a lot of Inuit and Yup'ik people these days who are monoglot English speakers.

  21. Graeme said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    Belatedly: English may well have lots of words for 'lawn', a human construction. Partly this would reflect gardening tastes, partly the hypervocabulary of our mongrel language.

    But there's no doubt: there are thousands of words for grass, ie the species (?) that make up any lawn, savannah, field etc. Now I hardly can discern my couch from my kikuyu. But the fact I'm aware of the existence of such distinct words must reflect on the 'lawn obsessed' culture I live in (cue to cartoon).

    Snow? Well, either in physical reality there are not so many types of snow as there are breeds of grass. Or, the variants of snow can only be discerned under microscopic or chemical analysis, and so are the realm of science and not the everyday from which ordinary language and thought emerge.

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