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More about language:

It's a myth that Eskimos have a huge number of words for snow (i.e., many more than we have). However, Eskimologists (not the same as eschatologists) confirm that, at least among the West Greenland Inuit, there's a single word for "They were wandering about gathering up lots of stuff that smelled like dead fish."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More about language:
  2. Zipf's law:
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
It is, however, not a myth that the Russian language has a huge number of words for how people go places. For a native English speaker, it is quite difficult to remember which word to say. The funniest concept is how rain falls (goes) from the sky to the ground. SA, don't take it as a criticism, I really liked my Russian language classes. I hope someday to go there to see the horses, especially the Akhal-Tekes.
1.4.2007 1:37pm
Greg Morrow (mail) (www):
Inuit languages, and many other world languages, particularly in North America and Australia, are what's called "polysynthetic", which basically means that in usual ordinary sentences, all the information is stuffed into the verb in one way or another, such that usual ordinary sentences are usually one word long—it's a complicated word that requires a lot of unpacking, but it's a single word.

Polysynthetic languages dictionaries are mostly word stems and contain relatively few words such as you'd find in an English dictionary.

(Reference: The Atoms of Language by Mark Baker.)
1.4.2007 1:43pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
Greg, is Mandarin polysynthetic? Just curious.
1.4.2007 2:12pm
Paul Zrimsek (mail):
So do the young West Greenlanders have a single word for "So like they were all totally wandering about? Like gathering lots of stuff and all? That, you know, smelled like dead fish?"
1.4.2007 2:17pm
Billy Bud:
If I understand the term correctly, Mandarin is not polysynthetic. Mandarin sentances are made up of several separate words.
1.4.2007 2:33pm
Jacob R:
Mary, Chinese(all dialects) is actually the case-book study of the opposite. It is known as an analytic (as opposed to synthetic). Also the general term for for a synthetic language is 'agglutinative'
1.4.2007 2:40pm
Maniakes (mail):
And the Romans had a word for kill one person in ten.
1.4.2007 2:56pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
I did a survey once and found that we, on the other hand, have a thousand words for hate.

Maybe I can find it in some archive ... [googles]

Well, here's one I posted on sorrow back when I had a computer program to link through a thesaurus. You can do it with almost any such word.

So imagine the eskimos commenting on this fact about the West. ``They have thousand words for sorrow.''

Some eskimo snopes will then debunk it.
1.4.2007 3:00pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
People in Beaver County, Colorado have a huge number of words for snow.
1.4.2007 3:01pm
Baronger (mail) (www):
People in Beaver County, Colorado have a huge number of words for snow.


Yes but I'm sure that the moderators won't let us print them.

English does seem to have a bunch of redundant words for physical violence. Behead, decapitate guillotine ... how many words do we need for removing someones head.
1.4.2007 3:10pm
Alan P (mail):
My son, a linguistic anthropology major, told me a story, possibly apocryphal, about language research.

The standard way for an anthropologist to learn a non written language is to point or touch a part of an interview subject’s body and ask what that was called.

It seems that an anthropologist, using a previously researched dictionary, thought that a particular work meant “arm” only to learn that what it really meant was

“quit poking me”
1.4.2007 3:19pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
A friend of mine, who was once a terrible Germanophobe (since convalesced, I think), used to complain that "the Germans have no word for 'subtle.'" I transformed this into a mock complaint that "the Germans have no word for 'subtil.'"

(Of course, the Germans have a lot more words for 'subtle' than that--als alle so feine, raffinierte Sprachen sollen.)
1.4.2007 3:25pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
BTW, what's the principle by which words are picked out in oral languages? (E.g., before written English, what would have prevented a linguist from answering Paul Zrimsek's query above with "Why, yes: it's 'Soliketheywerealltotallywanderingabout-
Likegatheringlotsofstuffandall-
Thatyouknowsmelledlikedeadfish?'")

(Amusingly, the comment heuristic disallows "single words" longer than 60 characters. (Hence the dashes.) Kind of tough for a thread about Inuit words.)
1.4.2007 3:35pm
Toby:
Maniakes:

ANd you can assume that when a news report uses that word preceded by "literally", you will know that the statement is literally untrue
1.4.2007 3:54pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I have one word for "shit, i got in the god damn shower with my socks on again."
1.4.2007 4:08pm
techster1 (mail):
a word (or more accurately, a morpheme) is the smallest sound unit to which a native speaker assigns a meaning in isolation. For languages without writing systems, you identify individual meaning units by breaking up larger phrases and asking if they mean anything on their own.

Speakers of synthetic languages often have difficulty identifying certain morphemes as having an individual meaning. For instance, if you asked a Turkish speaker who has had no linguistics training what the mi in 'Aybars dün arabasıyla geldi mi?' means, you often get an answer like "it doesn't mean anything, but it has to be there". (Mi is used to ask question.)
1.4.2007 4:15pm
techster1 (mail):
although, thinking a little further, English speakers have an awful time explaining what the word 'the' means. You could almost argue that it's only a convention of our writing system that 'the' is its own word- it could very well be written as a affix, the way it is in, say, Romanian.
1.4.2007 4:19pm
BobH (mail):
Two, four, six, eight, Bob will now agglutinate:

Gleichgewichtzustandwiederherstellungsmoeglichkeit.
1.4.2007 4:32pm
BobH (mail):
(It means: "the possibility of re-establishing a condition of equilibrium." And it's feminine, since it ends in -keit.)
1.4.2007 4:33pm
Hattio (mail):
Kovarsky,
Is stepping into the shower with your socks on a frequent problem?
1.4.2007 4:48pm
TRex (mail):
An Iraqi friend said Muslim prayer beads are made up of 99 beads - one for each of the 99 Arabic words meaning "God."
1.4.2007 5:32pm
CEB:
Meh. Americans have a single word for "walking back and forth across the yard pushing a wheeled, gasoline-powered machine in order to cut and collect a portion of the foliage that grows thereupon."
1.4.2007 5:33pm
crane (mail):
Just thought I'd add some extra clarification on Chinese:

Not only are words not combined in any way, they also don't change due to grammar. There is no verb conjugation or I/me business to deal with. Everything is determined by the relative positions of the words in the sentence.

This is not to say that Chinese has no morphemes that don't really mean anything. The word "ma" in "Zhe ben shu shi ni de ma?" doesn't really mean anything either, but its presence turns what would otherwise be a declarative sentence into a question.
1.4.2007 5:41pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Hattio,

several standard deviations more so than for the average person, i suspect.
1.4.2007 6:53pm
Shangui (mail):
"Not only are words not combined in any way..."

Though as the vernacular language became increasingly distinct from the written "classical" language, many words that were once represented by a single character/sound were conbined into binomes.
1.4.2007 6:53pm
Gaius Obvious (mail):
And America being a car culture has lots of words for "a designated place for going between two places": road, path, street, highway, lane, freeway, boulevard, avenue, trail, route, viaduct, turnpike, track, alley, parkway, trace, ramp, thoroughfare, bypass, and so forth.
1.4.2007 8:31pm
PersonFromPorlock:

...among the West Greenland Inuit, there's a single word for "They were wandering about gathering up lots of stuff that smelled like dead fish."

Among the Australians there's "fossicking," which means something similar. Less the smell, of course.
1.4.2007 9:15pm
Lev:
"They were wandering about gathering up lots of stuff that smelled like dead fish."

I would like to know what the word is, as it applies to a lot of what is done in politics.
1.4.2007 11:57pm
houston dude:
Maniakes,

English also has the word for "killing one in ten": Decimate

Techster1

"The" as an article in quite common in many languages, and relatively easy to explain. It identifies an object as being a specific one (or specific set) out of a class of similar objects (i.e. Spanish: el (m), la (f); French le (m), la (f); Italian il (m), la (f)), as opposed to an indeterminared object, anyone, of that class ("a", "an"). The only oddity of "the" compared to those languages is that the same word is used in singular and plural, male and female.

On the other hand, you do not need to go too far to find a word whose meaning is very difficult to explain to foreigners: the auxiliary verb "do" in the negative ("I do not run" instead of "I not run") or as a question, ("do you run?" instead of "you run?"), or, ever weirder, the particles will or shall to create the future tense.
1.5.2007 12:14am
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

The standard way for an anthropologist to learn a non written language is to point or touch a part of an interview subject’s body and ask what that was called.

It seems that an anthropologist, using a previously researched dictionary, thought that a particular work meant “arm” only to learn that what it really meant was

“quit poking me”


This is a variation on a fairly famous urban legend. The more common variants are:

1) European explorers in America learned the names of Amerindian tribes by asking neighboring tribes, "Who lives on the other side of that river/hill/forest?" The commonly used names for these tribes translate to "dirty stinking foreigners."

2) Many names of geographic features translate to "What the hell are you pointing at?"

That last one is similar to another myth that is actually true -- that there are places with names that are just the word for "hill" or "river" in different languages strung together. There are numerous places in New York called [Foo]kill Creek, where "-kill" is Dutch for "creek". And there's supposedly a place in England known as Torpenhow Hill. Those are, IMS, the Old English, Cornish, Saxon, and modern English words for "hill" respectively.
1.5.2007 1:52am
Freddy Hill (mail):
Q the Enchanter:

German is truly a wonderful and often surprising language. My favorite aggreagation is "Schlimmbesserung" - "An improvement that makes things worse." Not only it is readily understandable if you know basic german vocabulary, but it is useful in describing situations that I encounter daily in my life, particularly in business and politics. It also hints at a sense of humor that Germans are unfairly accused of lacking.
1.5.2007 1:54am
Taeyoung (mail):
However, Eskimologists (not the same as eschatologists) confirm that, at least among the West Greenland Inuit, there's a single word for "They were wandering about gathering up lots of stuff that smelled like dead fish."
My old linguistic professor's favourite example was, if I recall correctly, the Inuit "word" meaning "I will never go whale hunting with you again." Alas, I do not recall the word itself, or the various components. I have only a vague memory of words going tuktuliaqtuaq and whatnot.
1.5.2007 5:38am
Mahlon:
English does seem to have a bunch of redundant words for physical violence. Behead, decapitate guillotine ... how many words do we need for removing someones head.

English is perhaps the most bastardized language in common use. It has been invaded (at the same time as England) so many times that a significant part of it is actually composed of "foreign" words. "Guillotine" is an obvious example.

This is, however, an advantage for the language. Through these many seemingly redundant words, we can choose a specific on which perhaps possesses just the right shade of meaning to convey our thought most accurately. It provides English with a flexibility not generally found in other languages.
1.5.2007 12:06pm
Mahlon:
English does seem to have a bunch of redundant words for physical violence. Behead, decapitate guillotine ... how many words do we need for removing someones head.

English is perhaps the most bastardized language in common use. It has been invaded (at the same time as England) so many times that a significant part of it is actually composed of "foreign" words. "Guillotine" is an obvious example.

This is, however, an advantage for the language. Through these many seemingly redundant words, we can choose a specific on which perhaps possesses just the right shade of meaning to convey our thought most accurately. It provides English with a flexibility not generally found in other languages.
1.5.2007 12:06pm
marghlar:
"The" as an article in quite common in many languages, and relatively easy to explain.

Don't tell Bertrand Russell, though...he spilled a lot of ink on the question of what "the" means.
1.5.2007 12:18pm
Veeshir (mail):
Sean O'Hara, in the book Aztec by Jennings (a very good if somewhat disturbingly graphic one) he says that when the Spaniards landed in Mexico and asked the name of the place the locals said, "Yectetan" or "I don't understand you."
As his books are generally meticulously researched, I would figure that there is a word like that. I've googled it and in at least one dialect "yeca" means "understand" so I would guess that story is a plausible way to explain the name of the Yucatan.
1.5.2007 2:53pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I once read that Russian has a word for "the feeling one has for someone one once loved" (and this feeling is distinct from, say "hate".)

Is this true?
1.5.2007 4:51pm
Peter Wimsey:
This is, however, an advantage for the language. Through these many seemingly redundant words, we can choose a specific on which perhaps possesses just the right shade of meaning to convey our thought most accurately. It provides English with a flexibility not generally found in other languages.


Sorry, but claims like this are just nonsense. Languages are basically all the same in terms of what you can express with them, and all languages have redundant words; redundancy is an important feature of languages.
1.5.2007 5:11pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Germans do not have a sense of humor, but they are truly excellent with snark.
1.6.2007 7:28am
Aleks:
Re: English is perhaps the most bastardized language in common use. It has been invaded (at the same time as England) so many times that a significant part of it is actually composed of "foreign" words.

English also has a fair amount of duplicate vocabulary because it will have both a native word ("behead" for example ) and a Latin/French one ("decapitate").

Re: when the Spaniards landed in Mexico and asked the name of the place the locals said, "Yectetan" or "I don't understand you."

And "Istanbul" is supposed to derive from "Eis ten polin" (literally, To the City) which a Greek speaker answered when a Turk tried to ask the name of the city (Constantinople) and the Greek thought he was asking "where are you going?"
1.6.2007 10:28pm
Russ:
According to my High School French teacher, the French word for "transom" arose when a German pointed at one and asked "what is that?" (vas ist das?). The Frenchmen thought he was naming it, so now they call it le vasistas!
1.7.2007 10:12pm