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Old 12-31-2000, 09:01 AM
toddh toddh is offline
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Join Date: Dec 2000
Location: Seattle
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The question about how many words Eskimos have for snow is an old topic. Philosophers and linguists once argued about whether one language was "better" at describing snow, or dirt, or science, or philosophy.

Benjamin Whorf is (or was) the number one proponent of the view that "Language affects the way we think." In other words, in the simplest formulation, "The English language only has one word for snow, but Eskimos have nine (or 23 or 531) words for snow, so Eskimos have a richer language in that one category." It's usually called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism. In his writings, Whorf asserted (incorrectly, I might point out) that Hopi Indians, because of their language, would be good physicists, but Navajo Indians, because of their language, would not be good physicists.

The first flaw in that argument is that, if it's important, you'll make up words for it. I grew up in Minnesota and I know about snow. Yeah, "snow falling from the sky" is different from "snow on the ground," which could be "mushy snow" or "crunchy snow." Some snow is wet, which makes it good for snowballs, and some is dry. Do you count "wet snow" as two words? Or is "wetsnow" one word? I could make up ten or twenty or thirty words for different kinds of snow (snirt is snow mixed with dirt).

The second flaw is the idea that if you don't have a word for it, you can't talk about it. Which means, some concepts can't be translated. Which turns out to be racist. If you grew up in Finland, you think in Finnish and you can't possibly understand how to play basketball. Native-speakers of German are the only people who can understand philosophy. Egyptians have 20 words for pyramids. Russians have 30 words for religion. Nigerians have 100 words for the Niger river (The French language could have 100 words for the river if people in France cared about that river).

If a Nigerian grew up in France, he or she would learn the words for "Bearnaise sauce" and if a French person grew up in Nigeria, he or she would learn the words for the different kinds of trees.

ToddH