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If Inuit have 100 words for snow, linguists must have many for this idea
March 5, 2014 4:25 AM   Subscribe

Linguistic relativity is the idea that the language people use affects or even limits the way that they can think. This idea was developed in the early 20th century, and continues to be a matter of disagreement among linguists and cognitive scientists. The Cambridge and Oxford university presses are even publishing dueling upcoming books on the subject, The Bilingual Mind, which examines linguistic relativity in the context of people who speak more than one language, and The Language Hoax flatly denies that it exists.
posted by grouse (50 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
And Whorf.
posted by zamboni at 4:33 AM on March 5 [27 favorites]


The snow thing always sounded suspect. I grew up in a strict religion and I am EXTREMELY skeptical when people claim "my way of thinking gives me added insights". Yeah, sure, but ANY education gives you that. Then I learned of how the Eskimo language works, like sticking hyphens in "wet-snow" and "powdery-snow" and calling them new words. I am with The Language Hoax.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskimo_words_for_snow
posted by EnterTheStory at 4:34 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Death to the Universal Grammarians! Qapla'!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:34 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I wonder how many of the scientists and authors themselves are bilingual from toddlerhood. Speaking from experience, there are nuances and ways of thinking embedded in language that are pretty obvious in their differences.
posted by infini at 4:41 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


EnterTheStory is correct; Eskimo language extensively uses conjoined words, much like German is famous for doing but not nearly as harsh on the ears.
posted by mystyk at 4:42 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


The problem with Sapir-Whorf is that it doesn't seem to ever involve convincing controls-- perception is, unfortunately, one of the most relative concepts that we have. It's obvious that language shapes and directs your perceptions, but it's harder to make the case that it actually constrains you.

People raised with terms that encourage them to see a certain subject a certain way (relative directions versus compass points, vessel shape rather than composition) may very well approach those concepts with different preconceived notions, but they're still preconceived notions. What gets buried is one of the fundamental points which makes language so valuable-- you can be introduced to a term or concept of which you are completely ignorant, but because you are a human and have a fundamental ability to use language, you can learn all about this new idea and make it your own.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:45 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Pinker makes the point that English speakers unfamiliar with the german term 'Schadenfreude' (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) on becoming acquainted with it for the first time never say 'oh, my English trained mind cannot grasp this alien concept', but rather 'cool, there's a word for that?'.
posted by signal at 4:49 AM on March 5 [22 favorites]


I've been skeptical of Whorfian linguistic relativity ever since I heard of it; it's always seemed pretty obvious to me that it's not only possible but relatively common to conceive of ideas that I either don't know the word for (such as schadenfreude) or that there wasn't a word for, yet. I mean, FFS, Rich Hall had a nice little cottage industry going with Sniglets in the 80s.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:57 AM on March 5


like sticking hyphens in "wet-snow" and "powdery-snow" and calling them new words.

I think the point is that the Inuit have 100 different descriptions for snow - which is probably true. Old snow, new snow, wet snow, etc. all have different properties. The ancient Egyptians probably didn't need a word to describe old snow which has refrozen - they didn't even need to know the concept - but if you're putting wax on your sledge runners when it's -5C, you need to know this.
posted by three blind mice at 4:58 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Strong Sapir-Whorf: language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories.

That seems highly suspect. People experience things all the time before knowing if there is an exact word for it. People create new words all the time. People learn new words all the time. When you first heard the word "limerence", did that invent the concept for you, or did it simply supply a word for something you already recognized?

Weak Sapir-Whorf: linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

This, however, seems completely reasonable. If a language has the word "fireman" but a corresponding "firewoman" or "fireperson" does not exist, it influences and limits who you tend to think of as being in that profession. It doesn't mean that the idea of "firewoman" is cognitively incomprehensible to you ... but the language certainly affects how you think and behave.

I'd probably argue that concept precedes language, but then language can help perpetuate concept.
posted by kyrademon at 4:59 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]


The general view among linguists is that perception comes first, then language. Language is the way it is because of the perception, and not the other way around. After all, we can think without language (tip of the tongue phenomenon, anyone?), and as mentioned, we can change our perception in ways that differ from our language.

So the arrow of causality is:

Perception ——⟶ Language

There are two mistakes people can make in this area. One is to flip the arrow of causality:

Perception ⟵—— Language

and say, "My perception is the way it is because of my language."

An analogy: That would be like noticing that the dog gets excited when your partner comes home, and thinking, "The dog is excited, which makes my partner come home."

The other, less obvious, mistake is to have the arrow in the right direction, but to follow it upstream:

Perception ⤌⤌⤌⤌> Language

and say, "This language has this feature, and that must be because their perception is a certain way — (say,) they have lots of words for X because X is culturally important."

That's like saying, "My dog is excited, therefore, my partner must be home." Might be, but there are other things that can excite the dog, and there are other things that can cause language to be the way it is, like borrowings or chance. Culture's important, but we have to be careful about inferences.
posted by fontor at 5:08 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


While some languages might not have a specific word for an idea - as in schadenfreude above - languages are sufficient to communicate an idea, though it may take a sentence or two.

Syntax seems to me to be more likely to inform habits of thought but I'm only guessing here - I bet you could easily translate into any language, "About this I know fuckall". :)
posted by vapidave at 5:18 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


When it is said that language "limits the way people can think," I always think of these limitations in terms of our limited cognitive capacities. While it may not be impossible to think or imagine something without the word for it, it might very well be less probable that you will think or imagine that something without the word because it will less easily come to mind.

To expand on kyrademon's example... when someone encounters "fireman," they immediately and unconsciously associate a "fireperson" role with a "male". Because this association is the default (and has been strongly reinforced through experience), it takes additional cognitive effort to imagine a "fireperson" being a "female". These additional cognitive resources are not always available, and therefore it is a limitation of language and the way it is used -- if "firewoman" is not in our personal corpus, then we will be much less likely to make the "fireperson" => "female" association.
posted by tybeet at 5:28 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


In English we can say (in addition to, obviously, all the proper names for different kinds of cheeses) hard cheese, soft cheese, processed cheese, aerosolized cheese, goat's milk cheese, sheep's milk cheese, melted cheese, cheese fried to the bottom of the pan, cheese to bring to dinner parties, cheese with a little bit of mold on it, cheese sitting in your fridge that you really should eat before it goes bad, and so on; it's not because cheese has a huge place in Anglophone culture. And we don't think that it would, because these aren't single words, they're compound words or phrases.

The thing is that in Inuktitut, compound words and phrases get turned into a single word. So "I am hunting caribou" is a single word, but if an Inuktitut speaker wanted to say "I am hunting large pink bunnies," that would be a single word too. If they wanted to say "Cheese fried to the bottom of the pan," that would likely be a single word too. It's a property of the morphology of Inuktitut (and some other Inuit or Eskimo languages), not anything about snow.

(For the record, I am not an expert in Inuktitut, but my morphology professor was.)

Tybeet - but isn't it the long history of firefighting being dominated by men, more than the word itself, that creates those associations? And as more women have become firefighters, the language has shifted towards the gender-neutral "firefighter." So I see it as a case where culture, not language, has been the primary determiner.
posted by Jeanne at 5:35 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


it's not because cheese has a huge place in Anglophone culture

I disagree.
posted by glasseyes at 5:50 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I would say it goes both ways. Histories make certain parts of a language more or less relevant and useful -- Eskimos have more words for snow than any other culture because their environment (being so snow-rich) necessitates that. But at the same time, language encapsulates those differences, and allows the individual to more quickly and effortlessly draw out those associations.
posted by tybeet at 5:53 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


But Eskimos don't have more words for snow than other cultures.

They have a couple of morphemes for snow and ice, and a language system that allows all sorts of phrases to be agglutinated together into a single word.

You wouldn't look in the dictionary, for example, and find separate entries for all those purported snow words, any more than you'd expect to see a dictionary entry for "cheese fried to the bottom of the pan."
posted by Jeanne at 5:59 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


man is an interesting word, in that it first meant person. A wyf man, a weaver, therefore female; a husband man, a farmer, therefore male. So all those people who argue that 'man' is inclusive, are actually, unbeknownst to themselves imo, correct in a historical sense.

The other, less obvious, mistake is to have the arrow in the right direction, but to follow it upstream:

I'm not understanding why you think this is a mistake. To me it's a perfectly reasonable inference.

Also, in my Dad's language, pronouns refer to seniority rather than gender, which gives you valuable knowledge about how status is reckoned there. Certain nouns retain this connotation: you wouldn't refer to your sister or brother, you would refer to your senior or junior sibling, gender irrelevant.
posted by glasseyes at 5:59 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Culture is language to a great degree. Most people don't go about creating new vocabulary, so they fit their thoughts into whatever words they know. Whether or not they're capable of conceiving of something that they don't have a word for is less relevant than the fact that that thought flows more easily into areas we have words for.

Anyone who's learned another language has experienced new ways of thinking, even new ways of being, because of the relative ease or difficulty of expressing one sentiment vs another in that new language.
posted by grubby at 6:01 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


I also wouldn't look to the dictionary for a definition of "hard cheese" (I expect it would say "see: cheese") but I would consider it to be a part of the Anglophone language corpus.
posted by tybeet at 6:04 AM on March 5


But Eskimos don't have more words for snow than other cultures.

"This debate has rumbled on partly because of a grammatical peculiarity of the Eskimo family of languages. Boas studied Inuit, one of the two main branches; the other is Yupik. Each has spawned many dialects, but uniting the family is a feature known as polysynthesis, which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information in one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word.

For example, a single term might encompass a whole sentence in English: In Siberian Yupik, the base “angyagh” (boat) becomes “angyaghllangyugtuqlu” to mean “what’s more, he wants a bigger boat.” This makes compiling dictionaries particularly difficult: Do two terms that use the same base but a different ending really represent two common idioms within a language, or is the difference simply a speaker’s descriptive flourish? Both are possible, and vocabulary lists could quickly snowball if an outsider were to confuse the two — a criticism often leveled at Boas and his disciples.

Yet Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington, believes that Boas was careful to include only words representing meaningful distinctions. Taking the same care with their own work, Krupnik and others charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and concluded that they indeed have many more words for snow than English does." (emphasis added.)
posted by three blind mice at 6:14 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


As a trilingual person, I feel there are different concepts in different languages. I agree with kyrademon and tybeet that language can reinforce ideas and hence influence how people think.

That does not mean that it's impossible to have (for that language) novel ideas, but it requires a different kind of effort to go there. There is a difference between being able to explain a complex concept using multiple words or being able to use one single word off the bat.
It applies to sentiments as well, I think we all feel stuff but it often is so blurry and messy that we don't pursue it. And then along comes an Askme where someone names exactly that same sentiment. And only then people start exploring that very idea because they finally have newfound words for their sentiment. It's a bit like that.

Take concepts like zeitgeist, zugzwang, hygge, gezelligheid or saudade (there are many more). It is possible to dumb it down and find some word in the English language that vaguely fits, but does not grasp the connotation that comes with the original word. Hence we resort to using the foreign words.

There are words, emotions and concepts that are considered basically untranslatable.
posted by travelwithcats at 6:26 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


grubby: "Most people don't go about creating new vocabulary, so they fit their thoughts into whatever words they know. Whether or not they're capable of conceiving of something that they don't have a word for is less relevant than the fact that that thought flows more easily into areas we have words for. "

There is something to be said for this: words imbue ideas with a certain sense of legitimacy. Taken to the extreme, this is sometimes known as the nomological fallacy -- the belief that to name something, in argument, is to address it. But I think a subtler nomological fallacy exists in everyday use of language. If something can be named, then it seems more authentic, more real.
posted by tybeet at 6:32 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


While it may not be impossible to think or imagine something without the word for it, it might very well be less probable that you will think or imagine that something without the word because it will less easily come to mind.

Substitute "term" rather than "word" to allow for phrases (hard cheese) and I've long felt that way. Having a name for something makes it easier to communicate about, even to think about.

My personal example is nonbinary gender identity. There was no terminology for it until a couple of decades ago, outside of anthropology (and they generally used offensive terms that were wildly off the mark, like "berdache" (male whore)). I've felt something unusual gender-wise since childhood, but it didn't fit the "trapped in the wrong body" narrative so I didn't know what to make of it -- I didn't think of myself as trans* at all. Only a few years ago did I find the terminology, and communities, online which described what I'd been experiencing all along. Having words for it really helped me understand it.
posted by Foosnark at 6:46 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Language can limit in ways we may not realize. Design is an extremely flexible word in the English language, acting as a verb and noun, based on context and use. In Finnish (suomi) the word for design means product design, the tangible artifact creation aspect of it. Thus, concepts such as designing a business model or a new process or system are not easily translatable into the Finnish simply because the word itself prevents the meaning from existing. That is, you cannot create a tangible artifact called business model.

Just an example, I could go on and on about this frustrating barrier. I've started using their word for planning instead when talking about the more intangible elements of 'design' when trying to communicate the concept rather than the act.

Interpret, don't translate your message is something I hold on to as a principle when trying to communicate across language and cultural barriers. The very act of putting an abstract concept into the context of the other's frame of reference and worldview teaches you a lot about the barriers to understanding that the same or similar word might throw up, if simply translated instead.
posted by infini at 6:59 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


There is a difference between being able to explain a complex concept using multiple words or being able to use one single word off the bat.

Given the finite capacity of your phonological loop, the concision of your language wrt a particular set of concepts may affect what thoughts are easy to reach with that aspect of cognition.
posted by Jpfed at 7:03 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


I think the point is that the Inuit have 100 different descriptions for snow - which is probably true. Old snow, new snow, wet snow, etc. all have different properties.
posted by three blind mice at 7:58 AM on March 5


Every time I hear this, I think of all the words that English has for 'water':


Lake
Sea
Ocean
Wave
Creek
Crick
River
Rivulet
Stream
Brook
Channel
Neck
Pond
Pool
Watercourse
Puddle
Splash
Waterfall (or 'the Falls')
Rapids
Torrent
Flood
Flashflood
Swamp
Groundwater
Lagoon
Inlet
Sound
Strait
Bay
Reservoir
Irrigation
Fountain
Dew
Condensation
Moisture
Humidity
Mist
Rain
Drizzle
Snow
Graupel (which is a German loan word, but still....)
Ice
Beverage (Arguably. You could also make argument for Pour, Trickle, Drip, and Drop, I suppose)
Tears
Teardrop
Weeps and weeping
Misty-eyed

...I mean, the list just goes on. And as a kid, it all made perfect sense to me because England is a freakin' island, and a wet one, at that.

I'd always imagined that England was a place were people just stayed soaked to the bone all the time, so it was just vitally important to understand not just about water, but where it was, how big it was, how fast it was moving, and the source. It wasn't enough to just take a word like "pleuvoir" and re-purpose in various ways so that it means both "rain" and "crying", no, you had to be way more specific, lives were at stake because of all the constant wet! "What do you mean it's a 'lake'? Is the lake moving? Is it moving quickly? That's a flood, for God's sake, man, run for the hills!"

I decided at a young age that England went out and invaded ninety percent of the planet because they were just looking for place where they could stay dry for a while. Yeah, I was a weird kid.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:08 AM on March 5 [17 favorites]


the longest word in my language is aansprakelijkheidswaardevaststellingsveranderingen, so conjoinment yeah!
it's insurance talk, so I have no clue what this means
posted by ouke at 7:08 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Yeah, count me as a strong believer in weak Sapir-Whorf, as described above. I think it's tied into metaphor in an important way --- when a concept is embodied in a word, it becomes a brick you can use to build other edifices. "Big" is not the same as "tall" nor the same as "grand," though they're related; describing a room as tall in English and "grande" in French is pretty close, but when Sandberg call Chicago the "city of big shoulders" I think translating it as simply "les grandes épaules" would miss a lot of the meaning --- the proletarian everdayness of "big" feeds off of the brusque connotation of "shoulder" (due to its verb forms, e.g. to shoulder aside) to convey precisely strength with an edge of brutality, strength unmitigated, bare. "Grande," with its inherent ties to grandeur, greatness can never quite encapsulate that.

Making a word is boxing smoke. You take a meaning that in the mind blends and bleeds and give it edges, shape, so that there are things it does not mean, limits. The concepts may flow seemlessly in any mind, if unnamed, but you give them names and you give them limits, and they can thenceforth only be stacked in certain ways.
posted by Diablevert at 7:10 AM on March 5 [12 favorites]


Listen to a ski report. We have a lot of words for snow, too.
posted by Trochanter at 7:50 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


"...Chicago the "city of big shoulders" I think translating it as simply "les grandes épaules" would miss a lot of the meaning ---"

Um, yeah. So where does idiom intersect with agglutination? (Please let me reiterate that I am a complete idiot here and I'm not questioning Diablevert but using this as a springboard.)

To use the popular example, why is the slightly shorter "schaedenfreude" a more cromulent brick than any of the ways that "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others" can be expressed?

I recall watching a documentary about censorship in movies - the gist was that along with a limit of expression there developed a certain sophistication of expressing ideas.

What I am trying to say is that there is value to both vagueness and certainty in language and I think both inform thought.

It's too damn early in the morning damnit. Sorry, I'll shut up now.
posted by vapidave at 8:25 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


We know that language affects perception in another arena. Or at least that they are far more strongly linked than a strictly unidirectional "Perception ---> Language" causal arrow implies.
posted by regularfry at 8:27 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


"England was a place were people just stayed soaked to the bone all the time"

I see you've been here, then.
posted by regularfry at 8:29 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


What I am trying to say is that there is value to both vagueness and certainty in language and I think both inform thought.

Yes.
posted by infini at 8:36 AM on March 5


Three posts in a row: Worf, Wharf, and Whorf.

Warf the fuck is going on here?
posted by General Tonic at 10:02 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Today is Worfday. It is a good day to post.
posted by mwhybark at 10:07 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


this is one of my favorite topics, fyi. I wonder how animal communication via scents and glances would have similar issues.
posted by rebent at 10:23 AM on March 5


Strong Sapir-Whorf: language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories.

Weak Sapir-Whorf: linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.


The Weak Strong/Weak Hypothesis: Whenever "strong" and "weak" versions of a hypothesis exist (Sapir-Whorf, Gaia, etc.), the weak version will be thought very likely to be true, perhaps even obvious, when considered for a moment, and easy to collect supporting evidence for, while the strong version will be thought false by many people, and very difficult to find supporting evidence for.

The Strong Strong/Weak Hypothesis: Whenever "strong" and "weak" versions of a hypothesis exist, the weak version is true and the strong version is false.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:36 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]


Uh...I'm no linguist, magstheaxe, but many of those words aren't "words for water", at least in the English I speak (American, so of course suspect), and certainly not in the same sense as the "many words for snow". Lagoon, Inlet, Sound, Strait, Bay and Reservoir aren't water; they're geological features that contain water. Swamps have water, but that's not the primarily interesting part of them. Flood and torrent don't even have to involve to water (see); similarly with fountain. And if tear is a word for water, then so is blood, snot and the bulk of fluids on earth, too.
posted by kjs3 at 10:50 AM on March 5


kjs, the words I listed may not be exactly synonymous with"water" in American English, but if you check either the etymology or definitions of the words, as well as how they're being used in current American English, you'll find that in most cases, the words describe water in some fashion--how it behaves, where its located, how much of it there is ("ocean" is necessarily larger than "creek"), how it moves or doesn't move, and so forth.

The fact that they came be used to other ways does not negate this. Using "Fountain" to describe a chocolate dispenser doesn't change the fact that the word comes from a Latin word meaning "natural spring", or that most people still automatically mentally add the word "water" in front of it whenever they hear the word. "Torrent" may be mostly used to described an Internet distribution method these days, but it still comes from Latin meaning "rushing or roaring, as in a stream". "Flood" still comes from an Old English word that means "holy shit that's a lot of water and it's coming for us!", and that's still its primary definition.

And I find it interesting that you define lagoon, inlet, sound, strait, bay and reservoir as geological features that contain water; if you look at the definitions and etymology, it seems most people regards those words as describing water when it appears in certain geological features. Water, rather than geology, is still the primary feature. If you take the water out of a lagoon or bay, pretty much all you have left is real estate.

As for tears, well, tears resemble water. Probably because the main chemical component of tears is water, followed by salt and some antibodies. One obvious place you see language leveraging this resemblance is in French--they use "Il pleure" (he is crying) and "Il pleut". "Pleuvoir" (rain) and "pleurer" (weeping) have the same root. Menawhile, other bodily fluids just plain don't resemble water in the same way.

In the end, those words still describe water (and water-like things), and its properties. They may not be synonyms for water, but the words have a lot more to do with water than darn near anything else.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:03 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


My anecdotal observation was that when I was in the depths of a months long language immersion where I was deliberately and consciously avoiding my native language there was a moment where I found my internal monologue shifted to the new language. I felt that my perception became a lot more shallow and simple. As if the loss of color words reduced my ability to quickly distinguish various hues of blue. Many other students who shared my program went from people with sophisticated world views and complex understandings to what seemed to be less nuanced and simplified world views as the program wore on. The effect seemed to last for a time after I returned to using English as my primary daily language. It was a few weeks before I felt that the subtleties of the world had returned.
posted by humanfont at 12:07 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


I recognize what you are describing humanfont. It has usually happened to me after an extended period in rural somewhere developing where the vast differences in a privileged first world always on lifestyle with unlimited bandwidth and a farmer's worldview on his subsistence farm forced me to simplify my vocabulary and communication.
posted by infini at 12:15 PM on March 5


kjs, the words I listed may not be exactly synonymous with"water" in American English,

Ok, so they aren't "words for water".

but if you check either the etymology or definitions of the words, as well as how they're being used in current American English, you'll find that in most cases, the words describe water in some fashion--how it behaves, where its located, how much of it there is ("ocean" is necessarily larger than "creek"), how it moves or doesn't move, and so forth.

So...no matter how tenuously associated with water a word is, it's a word for water. This is off in "spherical cow" territory, so I'll just take your word for it.
posted by kjs3 at 2:17 PM on March 5


I wish people would forget about the Inuit and snow, and talk about Guugu Yimithirr and words for direction. These make a much better case for Whorf. (The second link in the post refers to this but doesn't give details.)

This article by Guy Deutscher explains the idea-- he gets to Guugu Yimithirr about halfway through. Basic idea: these folks don't have relative coordinates like left/right and front/back at all; everything is expressed in terms of cardinal directions. I think it's hard to read this description and not feel that it's a different way of looking at the world.

Whorf himself was mostly talking about Amerindian languages. A lot of his analyses seem overblown to me-- they sound like looking at French qu'est-ce-qu'il y a la? and marveling at the weirdness of the literal translation "What is that that he there has there?"-- but as I don't know Maya or Hopi I can't say anything about how well he understood those languages.

At the same time, he was not talking about the fact that some languages have words English lacks-- that isn't what linguistic relativity is about.
posted by zompist at 3:00 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I'll just leave this here.
posted by freelanceastro at 3:25 PM on March 5


> I've been skeptical of Whorfian linguistic relativity ever since I heard of it; it's always seemed pretty obvious to me that it's not only possible but relatively common to conceive of ideas that I either don't know the word for (such as schadenfreude) or that there wasn't a word for, yet.

> Strong Sapir-Whorf: language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories.

Weak Sapir-Whorf: linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.


... Whenever "strong" and "weak" versions of a hypothesis exist, the weak version is true and the strong version is false.

A lot of stuff gets attributed to Whorf that he didn't actually say. Whorf claimed that it was difficult to communicate concepts that you didn't have words for in the language were trying to communicate in. He did not claim that people can't perceive or think of things they don't already have words for, or that people can't think up new words for new concepts.
posted by nangar at 3:25 PM on March 5


Where a language is lacking, I think vocabulary gets built quite quickly if there is a need for it. Metaphors and strained analogies rapidly become idiom when used frequently. Phrases collapse into words, and concepts that would otherwise take paragraphs end up as single words.

For instance, among certain subcultures, English has no shortage of words for snow. The difference I guess is that they are almost all repurposed from elsewhere and would not have a snow-related meaning to someone not immersed in it.

Falling snow can be classified into snowflake types: prisms, stellars, plates, needles, columns, bullets, dendrites, graupel. These can then be further separated and classified if we allow compound words, then we get into sectored plates, fernlike stellar dendrites, hollow bullet rosettes, etc. Any of these can then be rimed, but not heavily enough to be considered graupel, so for example we could have rimed capped columns. Add in air layers above zero and then we could be dealing with hail, sleet, snain, freezing rain and ice pellets.

Then we can talk about how it's falling: it's never just snowing. Maybe it's just flurries, but if its coming down heavy it's dumping, puking and nuking, in order of intensity. If the wind is blowing, it might be a whiteout or a full-on blizzard.

Once snow is on the ground things can get even more complicated. On the ground snow can be powder, slab, crud, sluff, rubble, slush, firn, cement and rime; you can find it in drifts, spines, crusts, sastrugi, cornices, penitents, runnels, jellyrolls and cups; it can be corn, granules, sugar, rounds, facets, mirrors, surface hoar and depth hoar (I know these last two are compound words, but they are vital to understanding avalanches, and though both "hoar" they are really totally different phenomena). Once again, to be truly descriptive, compound words are essential.

"Should we be worried about the faceted sun crust in the alpine?" I asked.

"No, Amy dug a pit this morning and found it had bonded well to the windslab on lee slopes. Watch out for sastrugi ice on the ridges and be really careful below treeline, there's 2cm of buried surface hoar under yesterday's dump."

When minute differences in the snowpack are literally a matter of life and death, you come up with lots of words for snow pretty quick.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:46 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã
posted by Gymnopedist at 8:33 PM on March 5


I've worked as a professional translator (Japanese - English) for many years and I am also a strong supporter of the weak Sapir-Whorf thoery as described above. I think the strong version of this theory is a straw man that allows opponents of the concept to avoid talking about the true complexity of the issues involved.

Whenever this topic comes up, there's always talk about the Inuit 100 words for snow nonsense, and a focus on foreign loan words that have been part of the English lexicon for decades at least ('shadenfreude'). They seem like weak examples.

In my day-to-day work, the main difficulties with translation are not with individual words, but with concepts, not with explication, but with implication, and not with meaning but with suggestion. Any translator worth his or her 塩 knows that the non-referential qualities of language ensure that no translated text reads exactly the same in both language versions. Rather, the translator goes through a process that could be described as:

1. Gather the concepts from the first language text
2. Analyze and understand them
3. Reassemble them into a coherent whole in the second language

At a micro-level, this means that the output text may be more or less reordered, in terms of where concepts appear, how the ideas and logic flow, what their exact relationships are, and so on. This is a particular challenge in translation in the legal and scientific fields, where the (idealized) goal is absolute precision of meaning.

The problem is that language is really, really complex. Much more complex than any of us usually realize, because as language-using creatures, our native languages are almost invisible to us. It's like a pair of glasses. You forget you are wearing them until something fogs up the lenses.
posted by jet_manifesto at 11:40 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted. Note to everyone: please don't do the strike thing to restate what someone else said; also don't get into personal spats here, please and thank you.]
posted by taz at 12:20 AM on March 9


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