“We have [In English] the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.” So wrote amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in a famous 1940 essay.

This is the untranslatability problem in reverse: “snow” would mean nothing to an Inuit, as its scope is far too large. But check out the Wikipedia page for snow in Inukitut, an Inuit language of Canada. It’s short. The idea that there are tens or hundreds of Inuit words for snow derives from a failure to understand the structure of this group of languages, which are able to fuse adjectives on to a root noun to create a new descriptor. Imagine if in English we wrote softsnow and crustysnow. Would our vocabulary have suddenly expanded?

« Meaning of snow for eskimos »

A quote saved on Aug. 21, 2014.


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