Thursday, May 19, 2005

Mythbusting: Inuit Words for Snow

I've heard that it's a myth, but I've been looking for a good explanation of it, and here it is (emphasis in original):
[T]he Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn't that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning "slush", a root meaning "blizzard", a root meaning "drift", and a few others -- very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.

That does not mean there are huge numbers of unrelated basic terms for huge numbers of finely differentiated snow types. It means that the notion of fixing a number of snow words, or even a definition of what a word for snow would be, is meaningless for these languages. You could write down not just thousands but millions of words built from roots that refer to snow if you had the time. But they would all be derivatives of a fairly small number of roots. And you could write down just as many derivatives of any other root: fish, or coffee, or excrement.
Human creativity never ceases to amaze me. Anyone who thinks that the loss of small-population languages doesn't mean a loss of human cultural diversity, or who thinks that loss is not as serious as the loss of biological diversities, is just not thinking. I'm not saying that we should preserve in amber every dying culture -- change happens, and often for the better -- but we shouldn't be actively trying to stamp out civilizations which are not fundamentally abusive.

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