kitchen table math, the sequel: how many words do Eskimos have for snow?

Monday, June 4, 2007

how many words do Eskimos have for snow?

from the Week in Review:

PERHAPS no fact is more revealing about Iraq’s history than this: The Iraqis have a word that means to utterly defeat and humiliate someone by dragging his corpse through the streets.

source:
Iraq's Curse: A Thirst for Final, Crushing Victory ($)


Up until the moment I read this observation I would have said PERHAPS no fact is more revealing about Iraq's history than this: The Iraqis do not have any songs about Iraq.

When I first read the song factoid - apparently the Iraqis have never written or sung songs about Iraq - I thought: hoo boy. Keeping Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis together in one country is not going to be easy.

But I think having a word for defeating and humiliating an enemy by dragging his body through the streets probably trumps not having a national anthem.

The word is sahel, btw.

...................

Has "Eskimo" fallen out of favor?

Are we supposed to say "Inuit"?


update from Andy Lange:

This is cool: Languages of Iraq


If there's one thing I've learned from reading Language Log, it is to be suspicious of language-related claims, especially from sources such as the NY Times.

For example, saying "the Iraqis have a word" is somewhere between meaningless and outright misdirection, as there are three primary languages spoken in Iraq:
  • Kurdish
  • Mesopotamian Spoken Arabic
  • Standard Arabic


and, from Vlorbik:

what andy said.

elaboration:
geoffrey pullum, a founder of langlog,
wrote _the_great_eskimo_vocabulary_hoax_
in the days before blogs.
(usually does the best entries
in langlog, too.)

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

If there's one thing I've learned from reading Language Log, it is to be suspicious of language-related claims, especially from sources such as the NY Times.

For example, saying "the Iraqis have a word" is somewhere between meaningless and outright misdirection, as there are three primary languages spoken in Iraq:
- Kurdish
- Mesopotamian Spoken Arabic
- Standard Arabic

(from ethnologue.com)
From other sources, about 80% of the population speaks Arabic.

Not only that, all three languages are spoken in other countries as well.

(Andy Lange, misplaced my login)

Anonymous said...

what andy said.

elaboration:
geoffrey pullum, a founder of langlog,
wrote _the_great_eskimo_vocabulary_hoax_
in the days before blogs.
(usually does the best entries
in langlog, too.)

http://vlorbik.com

Tracy said...

Well English has a word for killing someone by throwing them out of a window. We also have a word that originally meant killing every tenth person.

Catherine Johnson said...

we do not have a word for throwing someone out a window!

Catherine Johnson said...

The French have a word for throwing people out the window.

Catherine Johnson said...

The salient point is: nobody in the English-speaking countries knows what defenestration means.

Catherine Johnson said...

What's the kill every 10th person word?

Catherine Johnson said...

As to not believing the NYTIMES, well yeah.

Anonymous said...

Decimate.

--DaleA

Catherine Johnson said...

really???

decimate means kill every tenth person?

LynnG said...

So the eskimos don't have thousands of words for snow?

Picture me sitting here in a pool of disillusionment.

This is (was) the only thing I picked up in a "Communications" class I was required to take to graduate from my undergraduate school. Other than the utterly worthless communications course, I think I got a decent education.

But the point is, this is the only thing that teacher said that I ever remembered for the entire course.

And it isn't true.

What other erroneous information did I absorb in my impressionable youth?

Educated by wolves apparently would have been an improvement.

Doug Sundseth said...

"Defenestrate" is definitely an English word. This is not to say it exists in no other language, but it's as surely English as "decimate" or "geology".

By the way, you might want to try counting English words for snow sometime: drift, glacier, powder, sleet, avalanche, ....

Anonymous said...

The History Channel et al, said that decimate was from the Roman practice of lining up their soldiers and killing every 10th one, in order to punish them.

I looked up the bit about the Inuit/Eskimo* years ago (maybe Pullum was the source?) and the idea that they have more snow-words than we do is considered an urban legend.

*I've heard whether they are called Inuit or Eskimos seems to depend on what country they're in: the U.S., Canada, or Siberia (IIRC, the model Irina Pantaeva was described as a Siberian Eskimo)


~~Tyrian Purple.

Catherine Johnson said...

I KNOW DEFEESTRATE IS AN ENGLISH WORD!

I'M JOKING!

sheesh

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm not joking about the fact that about 5 native speakers of English know what it means.

Which reminds me.

I have to go look up stochastic.

Also epicene.

And demotic.

There are a few others, but I've forgotten what they are...

rightwingprof said...

Geoff Pullum is God (well, close).

SusanS said...

Defenestration at Prague? Or something like that.

Wasn't someone thrown out of a window and it started another war? Some Bohemian tift during the Reformation, or was it something else?

Good thing my history stuck with me.

I think, and am too lazy to look it up, that fenestra (or something close) is Latin for "window."

I think.

Anonymous said...

the defenestration of prague
is the *second* coolest name
for any historical event known to me.

the *very* best is of course
the diet of worms.

Tracy said...

I'm not joking about the fact that about 5 native speakers of English know what it means.

All five of whom apparently read Kitchentablemath. :)

Doug Sundseth said...

I'd nominate the War of Jenkins's Ear if we're going to do the cool historical name thing. It has the virtue of being the earliest part of what could reasonably be described as either the first or second worldwide war, and it's also useful when discussing the lifetime of a casus belli*.

If you want obscure English words, "defenestrate" wouldn't even be in the top 1%, even if you eliminate jargon from consideration. Try pease, ekename, or yclept, all of which are not just English, but have been bog-standard, lower-class English quite recently. (Well, linguistically recent, anyway.)

* Apologies if that is grammatically ill-formed; Latin is not one of my languages.

Tex said...

This is a fun thread!

I originally knew the word fenestration from my geology days. It’s a type of rock porosity shaped like windows. I guess “de” means out or through?

And, I just recently learned about decimate when I was reading “The Ruthless Romans” from the Horrible History series. According to this book, it was typically done in the case of deserters. Nine deserters were forced to club the tenth soldier to death, and then the survivors were sent back into battle. Tough times!

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm not joking about the fact that about 5 native speakers of English know what it means.

All five of whom apparently read Kitchentablemath. :)


You guys are too much!

Catherine Johnson said...

I LOVE THE HORRIBLE HISTORY SERIES!

I'VE ONLY READ THE CRAZY CELTS ONE (CRUEL CELTS??) BUT I HAVE A LOT OF THE OTHERS!