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How Many Words Do We Have For Coffee?

March 4, 2012, 12:00 AM

In this guest post, David Bellos, director of Princeton's Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, demolishes the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. New Yorkers have more words for coffee than Eskimos do for snow, he says.

The number of New Yorkers who can say "good morning" in any of the languages spoken by the Inuit peoples of the Arctic can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. But in any small crowd of folk in the city or elsewhere you will surely find someone to tell you, "Eskimo has one hundred words for snow." The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax was demolished many years ago, but its place in popular wisdom about language and translation remains untouched. What are interesting for the study of translation are not so much the reasons this blooper is wrong but why people cling to it nonetheless.

People who proffer the factoid seem to think it shows that the lexical resources of a language reflect the environment in which its native speakers live. As an observation about language in general, it's a fair point to make. Languages tend to have the words their users need and not to have words for things never used or encountered. But the Eskimo story actually says more than that. It tells us that a language and a culture are so closely bound together as to be one and the same thing. "Eskimo language" and the "snowbound world of the Eskimos" are mutually dependent things. That's a very different proposition, and it lies at the heart of arguments about the translatability of different tongues. 

To the dismay of many a lost tourist, that can't be translated into tournez a gauche or a droite unless you also know which of the four cardinal points you are facing. Speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre (Cape York, Australia), for example, lay out ordered sets (say, numbers from one to ten, or photographs of faces aged from babyhood to maturity) not from "left" to "right" or the other way around but starting from east, wherever east happens to be with respect to the table at which their anthropological linguist interrogator is seated.

But languages can be even weirder than that. In Nootka, a language spoken on the Pacific coast of Canada, speakers characteristically mark some physical feature of the person addressed or spoken of either by means of suffixes or by inserting meaningless consonants in the body of a word. You can get a very faint idea of how this works from vulgar infixes such as "fan-bloodytastic" in colloquial English...

...However, the rapid exploration of the diversity of human languages in the nineteenth century also led people to wonder in what ways the languages of less developed peoples were different from "civilized" tongues. Greek had "produced" a Plato, but Hopi had not. Was this because so-called primitive languages were not suited to higher thought? Or was it the lack of civilization itself that had kept primitive languages in their irrational and alien states?

Explorer-linguists observed quite correctly that the languages of peoples living in what were for them exotic locales had lots of words for exotic things, and supplied subtle distinctions among many different kinds of animals, plants, tools, and ritual objects. Accounts of so-called primitive languages generally consisted of word lists elicited from interpreters or from sessions of pointing and asking for names. But the languages of these remote cultures seemed deficient in words for "time," "past," "future," "language," "law," "state," "government," "navy," or "God."

More particularly, the difficulty of expressing "abstract thought" of the Western kind in many Native American and African languages suggested that the capacity for abstraction was the key to the progress of the human mind... The "concrete languages" of the non-Western world were not just the reflection of the lower degree of civilization of the peoples who spoke them but the root cause of their backward state. By the dawn of the twentieth century, "too many concrete nouns" and "not enough abstractions" became the conventional qualities of "primitive" tongues.

That's what people actually mean when they repeat the story about Eskimo words for snow. The multiplicity of concrete terms "in Eskimo" displays its speakers' lack of the key feature of the civilized mind--the capacity to see things not as unique items but as tokens of a more general class. We can see that all kinds of snow--soft snow, wet snow, dry snow, poudreuse, melting snow, molten snow, slush, sleet, dirty gray snow, brown muddy snow, banks of snow heaped up by wind, snowbanks made by human hand, avalanches, and ski runs, to name but fourteen--are all instances of the same phenomenon, which we call "snow"; "Eskimos" see the varieties, not the class. (This isn't true of real Inuit people, only of the "Eskimos" who figure in the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.)

Translation between "civilized" and "primitive" languages distinguished in this way was clearly impossible. The solution was to teach colonial subjects a form of language that would enable them to acquire civilization, and the obvious tool to carry out the mission was the language of the imperial administrators themselves. In some cases, as in the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the impoverished resources of native languages were seen as such a threat to the spread of civilization that the languages and their written records had to be eradicated. But the destruction of the Maya codices wasn't solely an expression of naked power, religious fervor, and racism.

The suppression of lesser tongues was not a policy reserved by the Spanish for other continent--it was already the European norm. France had already begun its long campaign to stop peoplespeaking anything that was not French within its own borders. Breton, Basque, Provencal, Alsatian, Picard, Gascon, and many other rural patois were almost hounded out of existence by laws and institutions over a period of several hundred years. The long pan-European drive toward "standard languages" was powered not only by political will, economic integration, urbanization, and other forces at play in the real world.

It also expressed a deeply held belief that only some languages were suited to civilized thought. What, then, can it mean to "think in Hopi"? If it means anything, can it be called "thought"? The linguist Edward Sapir came up with a revolutionary answer in the early part of the last century. Breaking with millennial practice and prejudice, he declared that all languages were equal. There is no hierarchy of tongues. Every variety of human language constitutes a system that is complete and entire, fully adequate to performing all the tasks that its users wish to make of it.

Sapir didn't argue this case out of political correctness. He made his claims on the basis of long study of languages of many different kinds. The evidence itself brought him to see that anyattempt to match the grammar of a language with the culture of its speakers or their ethnic origins was completely impossible. "Language," "culture," and "race" were independent variables.

He... showed that there is nothing "simple" about the languages of "simple" societies--and nothing especially "complex" about the languages of economically advanced ones. In his writings on language he showed like no one before him just how immensely varied the forms of language are and how their distribution among societies of very different kinds corresponds to no overarching pattern. 

[However] different languages, because they are structured in different ways, make their speakers pay attention to different aspects of the world. Having to mark presence or absence in languages that have evidentials, or being obliged to mark time in languages of the Western European type, lays down what he called mind grooves--habitual patterns of thought. The question for translation (and for anthropology) is this: Can we "move more or less satisfactorily from one 'habitual pattern' to another?" The view that you can't ever really do this has become known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, despite the fact that Edward Sapir never subscribed to the idea.

The trouble with the simple form of this misnamed prejudice--that translation is impossible between any two languages because each language constructs a radically different mental world--is that if it were true you would not be able to know it...

If we grant that different languages provide different kinds of tools for thinking but allow for substantial overlaps--without which there could be no translation--we are left with the idea that there are just some things in, let us say, French that can never be expressed in English, and vice versa. There would then be an area of "thinking in French" that was "ineffable" in any other tongue... The mind grooves laid down by the forms of a language are not prison walls but the hills and valleys of a mental landscape where some paths are easier to follow than others.

If Plato had had Hopi to think with, he would not have come up with Platonic philosophy, that's for sure--and that's probably not a merely retrospective illusion based on the observable fact that there's no Hopi speaker who thinks he is Plato. Hopi thinkers think something else. That does not make Hopi a primitive language unsuited to true thought. It means that speakers of what Sapir called "Average West European" are poorly equipped to engage in Hopi thought. To expand our minds and to become morefully civilized members of the human race, we should learn as many different languages as we can. The diversity of tongues is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.

If you go into a Starbucks and ask for "coffee," the barista most likely will give you a blank stare. To him the word means absolutely nothing. There are at least thirty-seven words for coffee in my local dialect of Coffeeshop Talk. Unless you use one of these individuated terms, your utterance will seem baffling or produce an unwanted result.

You should point this outnext time anyone tells you that Eskimo has a hundred words for snow. If a Martian explorer should visit your local bar and deduce from the lingo that Average West Europeans lack a single word to designate the type that covers all tokens of small quantities of a hot or cold black or brown liquid in a disposable cup, and consequently pour scorn on your language as inappropriate to higher forms of interplanetary thought--well, now you can tell him where to get off.

Excerpt from Bellos' book, Is That a Fish In Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything reprinted courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. For more, check out Bellos' author page here.  

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, September 22 2012

Today's Big Idea: Linguistic imperialism

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