100 words for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

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It's a trend: comix-ironic Whorfianism. Several readers have drawn my attention to the latest Diesel Sweeties:

Also here and here and here and here and here and …

Just to underline the fact that the rhetorical trope is alive and well outside of the comics, here's this morning's haul from Google News:

I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fifty words for sand & the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow. I wish I had a thousand words for love, …
Tetzlaff seems to have as many pianissimos as the Inuit proverbially have words for snow.
…a performance long on dynamic energy and full of more tunes built for seduction than Eskimos have words for snow
Eskimos are said to have more than a dozen words for snow. Sandi and I now have at least two dozen for rain, only three of which are printable.
New Zealanders have a lot of words for failure and disappointment, just as the Eskimos have a lot of words for snow.
Like Eskimos and snow, we have 40 different words for flat and the fish derivatives to make flat rideable.
It is said that the Eskimos have 20-plus words for different kinds of snow. With a little embellishment, perhaps, a life-long dairy farmer could come up with at least half that number of words for grass turning into hay…
…the carrier seemingly sought to offer at least as many measures of its debt as Eskimos have words for snow.
Like Eskimos with their fifty words for snow, my students had a keen appreciation gradations in skin tone…
Like Eskimos and “snow,” botanists have dozens of words for “hairy,” and a microscope reveals why.


  1. Pez said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Hahaha, pretty funny.
    Numerous tobacco and alcohol companies provide huge amounts of money to campaigns that create a distinction between legal, and illegal drugs.

    Anyway, here's a few more slang phrases for coffee: eye opener, muddy water, black tea.

    [(myl) Why so recherché? The traditional slang includes java and joe; and then there are the many layers of borrowed Italian and French terminology, from latte and espresso to au lait.]

  2. Pablo Duboue said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Nothing beats the Spanish slang for (bad) coffee:
    "jugo de paraguas" (umbrella juice)

    (This is Buenos Aires slang, I don't know if it is used
    In other places.)

  3. Chris Crawford said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Was Sapir-Whorf ever formally enunciated? I have seen many descriptions of it, none of which quite agree, and of course all the discussions of the strong versus the weak version, but my impression is that this is a concept that they developed and expressed in many different wordings without ever formalizing. Did they ever actually nail it down to a formal statement?

  4. Ben Martin said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I like the one that says "as the Inuit proverbially have words for snow" – it's at least somewhat responsible…

  5. parkrrrr said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Simple disproof of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: spammers have 27,000 words for the male organ.

  6. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    "New Zealanders have a lot of words for failure and disappointment . . ."
    Really? I bet the Australians — a far more linguistically inventive people than us New Zealanders — have more.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Maybe the "strong version" is the one that suggested that Hopi-speakers should have a marked comparative advantage over speakers of any IE language in understanding modern physics. Has it been enough decades that we can say that the implied testable prediction of a wave of Hopi-speaking physicists should have happened by now?

  8. Dan Scherlis said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    Chris, I've ONLY heard the words "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" (with or without the "strong form" modifier) uttered by people bent on debunking such a thing. As I understand the history, what they generally do debunk is but a straw man, constructed by truth-functionalists with little patience for those levels of perception and meaning that Whorf observed.

    So, no, I don't think either Sapir or Whorf uttered such a thing. I can probably find some papers supporting this, if you like.

    The linguistic relativity principle, as actually articulated by Whorf in his papers, seems pretty solid to me, especially in context of the good work done more recently on framing by linguists (including here in LL; who's got the links for Chris?) and by other cognitive or behavioral scientists (including Kahneman and Tversky). I recommend a re-reading of Whorf's papers.

    And I really hope I haven't started some sort of bitter debate over Whorf. Not here; not in this most friendly, thoughtful, playful comment space. I'm no troll. Honest! (A real troll would pin the straw-man ruse on Chomsky's followers, and would distract you all by dragging the Pirahã into this.)

    [(myl) An excellent (and sympathetic) historical review can be found in John Lucy, Language Diversity and Thought. The sequence "Sapir-Whorf" occurs 46 times in the book's 328 pages; "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" occurs 20 times (the others are things like "the Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis", and so on.

    So if you've "ONLY heard the words 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' uttered by people bent on debunking such a thing", you've been hanging around the wrong people.

    One of Prof. Lucy's main goals is to disengage the hypothesis from various caricatured versions that it has gotten tangled up with. But if you look at the history, you'll see that people sympathetic to the hypothesis have been at least as responsible for the caricature as those who reject it. In fact, if we include the intelligentsia at large, including science fiction writers, journalists, and so on, the caricature appears almost entirely to be the effect of "friendly fire".

    As a partial antidote (or innoculation), you might want to read Sapir on the "formal completeness" hypothesis.]

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    @Pablo How about the French eau de vaisselle ("dishwater") or the broader lavasse?

  10. John Cowan said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    My favorite baroque expression for weak coffee: love in a canoe 'fucking near water'.

  11. Stuart said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    I bet the Australians — a far more linguistically inventive people than us New Zealanders

    Interesting assertion – what's the basis for it? I could say that at least we are bringing one of our languages back from the brink rather than watching scores of them die.

  12. andrew cave said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    Australian's have more words for failure? At least we don,t need the phrase 'AllBlacks in the World Cup'.

  13. andrew cave said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    mind you, failure is one of the few words that rhymes with Australia.

  14. Stuart said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    "failure is one of the few words that rhymes with Australia" If that one is inappropriate, and this K1W1 thinks it probably is, perhaps genitalia is more relevant and appropriate rhyme for your country's name. If you can come up with rhymes for the official name of my country, in all three official languages, I will be very impressed.

  15. peter said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:32 am

    Simon Cauchi said (July 30, 2009 @ 12:25 pm)

    "New Zealanders have a lot of words for failure and disappointment . . ."
    Really? I bet the Australians — a far more linguistically inventive people than us New Zealanders — have more.

    Is this yet another reason for New Zealanders to feel inadequate? That they can't express their failures and disappoinments as well as Australians can?

  16. Peter C. Rollins said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 7:54 am

    Please note that the multiple-word for something special (ice or coffee) in these discussions is a common misinterpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    Whorf pushed for the importance of the deep structure (totally unconscious to users) of language as an influence on the world view
    of a culture. His late articles pose the Western world vs. American Indian world as an example–and one in which he would value both perspectives, if possible.

    See The Benjamin Lee Whorf Legacy CD-ROM for details about these issues, to include a geneology of Whorf's ideas. Details can be found at http://www.petercrollins.com.

    The CD-ROM has on it a novel written by Whorf in connection with the Scopes trial. Whorfians, read this work of fiction to discover another dimension of the great man!

    Peter Rollins

  17. peter said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    In case anyone outside Australasia is upset by the Australian-New Zealand banter above, it is worth recalling that the preamble to the Australian Constitution defines NZ as one of the States of the Australian federation (which would enable NZ fast-track legal entry to joining Australia should they so wish), that the two countries enjoy free trade in almot all products and the free movement of citizens, and that NZ cabinet ministers participate in the Commonwealth-State Ministerial Council meetings of the Council of Australian Governments (which meetings, as a consequence, often take place in NZ).

  18. Jim said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    "In case anyone outside Australasia is upset by the Australian-New Zealand banter above,…"

    I'm just upset that you're not doing it in a mudpit. Remember, you can't call NZ "the backyard we don't mow"; that's already taken for Canada.

    Ref the Sapir-Whorf business, I remember someone claiming that some teachers had trouble keeping Korean immigrant (male) students in line because English didn't have a clear means of marking social hierarchy. I doubt it was that much of a problem to begin with, and I doubt that language was the real probelm if it was.

  19. Dave Brown said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 8:40 am

    I enjoy pointing out that American English has dozens and dozens of words for "car". That makes people go "…oh" very effectively.

  20. Mischa Gabowitsch said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    I am currently editing a text (in Russian) whose author states that Caucasian languages have dozens of words for "honor." I take her word for it (she does mention six words from Karabagh Armenian). However, she also uses the infamous "eskimo comparison" ("the inuit have over 40 different ways to distinguish between different states of snowfall") and, more intriguingly, claims that the Nuer have 100 words for cows. She was unable to provide a reference, and is happy for me to scrap the whole passage, but I was wondering if anyone knew whether there is any basis in fact for the latter claim?

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