Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Morphology and destiny: On words for snow and Sapir-Whorf

Posted: Jan 28, 2014 11:01;
Last Modified: Jan 28, 2014 12:01

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We had a lot of fun in my grammar class yesterday.

We were beginning a unit on morphology. The night before class, I had carefully prepared lecture notes on my tablet (I’m using a new textbook this year and taking the opportunity to revise all my lesson plans).

For reasons known only to my tablet, however, the notes I prepared were gone when I showed up in class yesterday morning , meaning that I had to wing it after all. Since my goal for the lecture was to derive a typology of English morphology from my students innate grammatical knowledge, I decided simply to write a bunch of different types of words on the board and see where things took us: dog, books, do, does, revert, convert, I’ll, we’d, and… undoifications.

Turned out this last was an inspired choice. One student clapped every time we managed to put one of the sub-forms into a meaningful sentence and the student blogs are full ideas stoked by the example: one student went home and impressed his or her parents with the newly acquired ability to break the word down and demonstrate how its component morphemes worked; another said that while it hadn’t entirely convinced her she should become an English major, it was at least evidence she should stay in the class.

A third mentioned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and the (admittedly) extremely interesting idea that a language’s grammatical and semantic categories might influence how a native speaker of a language thinks.

This gave me the opportunity to bring out one of my favorite articles on this subject, Geoffrey K. Pullum’s “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7 (1989): 275-281 (The article is also available in Pullum’s Book by the same name and as a self-archived posting on his University website).

The “Vocubulary Hoax” is the claim—still very often repeated—that “Eskimos” have many more words for snow than speakers of other languages such as English. And that this large vocabulary allows them to have conceptual categories in relation to snow that speakers of other languages cannot easily share (I use the term “Eskimo” here rather than Innuit, because, as Pullum shows, the claim has nothing to do with the actual Innuit: it is really about our perceptions of “the other”).

As Pullum shows (based on work by Laura Martin), the origins of this claim lie in the introduction to Franz Boas’s 1911 Handbook of American Indian Languages (oddly misidentified in Pullum as the Handbook of American Indians, which would be a completely different thing), where he discusses how there is no consistency in the phonological or morphological representation of concepts among languages:

It seems important at this point in our considerations to emphasize the fact that the groups of ideas expressed by specific phonetic groups show very material differences in different languages, and do not conform by any means to the same principles of classification. To take again the example of English, we find that the idea of WATER is expressed in a great variety of forms; one term serves to express water as a LIQUID; another one, water in the form of a large expanse (LAKE); others, water running in a large body or in a small body (RIVER and BROOK)); still other terms express water in the form of RAIN, DEW, WAVE, and FOAM. It is perfectly conceivable that this variety of ideas, each of which is expressed by a single independent term in English, might be expressed in other languages by derivations from the same term.

Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, quana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, PIQSIRPOQ, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, quimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT. (25-26)

The point he seems to be trying to make is the one Saussure was making at almost the same time in his course on General Linguistics about the arbitrary nature of language (Boas: “Thus it happens that each language, from the point of view of another language, may be entirely arbitrary in its classifications,” p. 26). What he was not trying to say is that language determines consciousness or controls perception. Indeed, in the final sections of his introduction, Boas, who is quite concerned with such questions about “the primitive mind,” considers and dismisses the idea:

First of all, it may be well to discuss the relation between language and thought. It has been claimed that the consciseness and clearness of thought of a people depend to a great extent on their language… It seems very very questionable in how far the restriction of the use of certain grammatical forms can really be conceived of as a hindrance in the formulation of generalized ideas…. (64).

It does not seem likely, therefore, that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of culture, but not in so far as a certain state of culture is conditioned by morphological traits of the language (67).

In other words, in his passage on English and “Eskimo” words for water and snow respectively, Boas’s point is simply that languages form words for related concepts in one of two arbitrary ways: by creating a series of words based on a common root or, as in these two cases, using completely different roots to express closely related ideas. While he does think that the semantic range of words available to a language will be derived in part from the culture and environment in which its speakers find themselves (we’d hardly expect a language to have words for things or situations its speakers have never come into contacts with), he does not think that this condition is deterministic. As he argues, his own fieldwork suggests that speakers of a given language are perfectly able to grasp and discuss new concepts and experiences when these are presented to them, regardless of the syntax and morphology of their languages (see in particular pp. 64-67).

Ironically, according to Pullum, Whorf formulated his idea that language does dictate understanding in part in response to Boas’ example of Innuit snow vocabulary—even though Boas is, in a certain sense, bringing it forward as a way of anticipating and disproving the argument. His point is not that the Innuit have more words for snow than English speakers do; as Pullum points out, English Speakers have words for many of these and other types of snow: snow, snowfall, snow drift, powder, slush, crud, blizzard) and it seems highly unlikely that the Innuit have ever been amazed at the fact that English speakers have different words for big and small rivers.

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