Snowclone of the week

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Melissa Holbrook Pierson, "What Is Your Dog Telling You? They may not use words, but dogs say a lot more than we realize with their body language", WSJ 5/11/2015:

For the same reason that Eskimos purportedly have 50 different words for snow, dogs have a vast repertoire of gestures for appeasement and propitiation. The Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has identified some 30 “calming signals”—movements offered to deflect trouble (which may also relieve stress in both giver and receiver). Supremely subtle, sometimes so quick we don’t notice them, these appeasing signals include a flick of the tongue; turning the head or gaze away; suddenly sniffing the ground or sitting; yawning; shaking off; or approaching on a curve.

[h/t Amanda Seidl, who is planning on getting a dog]



  1. maidhc said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 5:12 am

    It also turns out that sheep have unsuspected abilities to understand human language:

  2. neko said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 6:42 am

    "(For the same reason) that Eskimos purportedly have 50 different words for snow"

    What exactly are they claiming is the reason?

  3. Nathan said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 8:40 am

    It's obvious that the same explanation accounts for both the 50 snow-words and the 30 calming signals: most of us are credulous of such claims.

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 9:01 am

    I guess that Ms Pierson thinks that dogs experience many occasions that call for them to appease and to propitiate. Cats, on the other hand, display many signals for forgiveness and tolerance. There's no need for them to have a hangcat expression.

  5. cs said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    I guess with "purportedly" the writer is not claiming that Eskimos actually do have 50 words for snow, but just referencing the cliche?

    From the context, I guess the purported reason would be that snow is such an important factor in their lives that they have a frequent need to think about or refer to it.

  6. KeithB said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    One would think that a Norwegian would have a lot of words for frozen precipitation, too.

  7. peterv said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

    The mind boggles at how many gestures for snow Eskimo dogs must have!

  8. Gene Callahan said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:02 pm

    What is really strange here is that "purportedly" pretty much undermines the causal claim. If Eskimos don't *really* have 50 words for snow, then there is NO reason they have 50 words for snow… since they don't. So dogs can't do *anything* for that same (non-existent) reason.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

    Gene Callahan:

    This is a case where the words connect syntactically in a somewhat different way than you might expect based only on the meaning behind them. (Compare "a quiet cup of tea", where the cup itself is not being described as any quieter or louder than any other cup.)

    There's a claim in widespread circulation that goes like this: "Eskimoes have a lot of words for snow, because << reason X >>". The sentence is saying that, for << reason X >>, dogs really do have lots of appeasement gestures. That reason is part of what's purported.

  10. Adam Funk said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 3:38 am

    Huh! I expected dogs to have 50 words for butt smells….

  11. Gene Callahan said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    @Michael Watts: I understood all that. The causal claim is still undermined: "You see dogs do X for reason Y, just like Eskimos fictitiously do Z for reason Y."

    You introduce something like this to make your new claim more plausible: "Birds can sense magnets fields, so maybe dolphins can too."

    But this doesn't work: "Dragons have great avarice for gold, so perhaps iguanas do as well."

  12. Florence Artur said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

    @Adam Funk: they probably do, but the researchers were humans, not dogs.

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