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Translation Myths – “Eskimos have over 400 words for snow”

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This myth is the product of a game of linguistic Chinese Whispers that got out of hand when Benjamin Whorf claimed that, because the Inuit had so many words for snow, they were capable of experiencing snow in a more sensuous and profound way than speakers of any other language.

For some reason this erroneous piece of information has stuck in the public imagination and, as Geoffrey Pullum wrote in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, ‘Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded.  The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality.’

There are a number of languages in the Eskimo-Aleut family; rather, there are a number of languages known as ‘Eskimo’, and the number of words for snow varies between them, but the Inuit language is most usually associated with this story.  In purely numerical terms, the Inuit probably have at most six or seven different words for snow, which is roughly the same as the snow-related vocabulary of, say, expert skiers. 

Linguistically, the most interesting aspect of Inuit snow terminology is that, for instance, snow that is falling and snow on the ground are different words with different roots; but ask your average native English speaker whether, say, the existence of the words ‘rain’ and ‘puddle’ is indicative of a more sensuous and profound experience of rain than speakers of other languages are capable of, and they would probably be sceptical.

In terms of symbolic usefulness, though, the enduring nature of this interesting ‘fact’ suggests that we like to imagine that the Inuit view snow differently from other cultures: rather than simply seeing ‘snow’, they see one of a myriad of subtle variations of it.  The images of Inuit culture that this conjures up are more meaningful and useful to us than the prosaic restrictions of facts, reality and comparative linguistics. 

However, even if the Inuit did have an abnormally large number of words for snow, this would not be remotely surprising, let alone ‘persistently interesting’.  Just as artists distinguish between ‘oil paint’, ‘acrylic’ and ‘watercolours’ where most of us would just see ‘paint’, peoples who live in places where there is a lot of snow probably do need to talk about it more, and in more detail, than, for instance, desert peoples.

Any more profound experience of snow the Inuit may have is almost certainly a product of living in the Arctic rather than something determined by language.  However, the myth endures because it plays into our ideas about an exotic people living in extreme conditions and how we imagine they must experience snow so differently from us.

“Women talk more than men and men interrupt more than women”

This is another case where the ‘persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality’.  Little research has been done in this area, but compared to the highly publicised statistic that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day and the average man just 7,000, any differences between the amount men and women talk are very slight, especially compared to the variation within each gender group. 

Factors such as social setting or individual circumstances would also influence how much people spoke, making any generalisation based on gender almost impossible.  A newsreader, City trader or shop assistant would probably speak more during their working hours than a surgeon or a plumber, regardless of gender; similarly someone who lived with a partner, family or housemates would probably speak more than someone who lived alone.

However, the myth supports many stereotypes of male and female behaviour: the chattering wives and taciturn husbands of Jane Austen or soap operas; the idea that women are more at ease in social situations than men; the idea that men bottle their feelings up while women are more emotionally literate and more likely to talk about something that is troubling them.  The equally unsubstantiated myth that men interrupt more than women also supports stereotypes of confident, competitive men.

Neither of these beliefs has been backed up by research and what little data there is suggests that there are no significant differences between how much men and women speak or interrupt, but both are frequently quoted in popular psychology books and commonly accepted as fact.  As with the Eskimos supposedly having 400 words for snow, the symbolic resonance of these statements backs up the cultural sentiment that men and women come from different planets.

“Chinese is a hard language”

Whether a language seems ‘hard’ or not, is really a matter of perspective; after all, you rarely hear Chinese people complain about Chinese being tricky to learn, but they may well struggle with aspects of English.  If languages were intrinsically easier or harder than each other, children would develop language at different rates depending on their mother tongue.  This does not happen, which implies that a language is not difficult in and of itself, but appears difficult when learnt as a second language because it has different qualities and characteristics from the student’s own language.

Learning a language closely related to your own is always easier than learning a more dissimilar one, as many of the words have common roots and the sounds and grammatical structure are likely to be similar.  An Italian speaker would generally find it harder to learn English or German than to learn Spanish or French; for a Norwegian speaker, it would be the reverse.

Taking Mandarin Chinese as an example, it certainly has some features which make it difficult to learn for people whose native language is very different, but this is because of the differences between the two languages rather than anything intrinsic to Mandarin.  In fact, given that it has few grammatical inflections – no tenses, no voices, no grammatical encoding of singular and plural – the structure of Mandarin could arguably be said to be quite straightforward.

To an English speaker, the hardest part of learning Mandarin would generally be the fact that it is tonal.  Words can have completely different meanings depending on the tone, e.g. ma could mean ‘mother’, ‘horse’ or ‘to scold’.  As an adult learner, it is hard to learn to distinguish between new sounds; after the age of about seven, your brain’s parameters are set to work with the sounds used in your native language and it takes a great deal of effort to use the phonology of a second language competently. 

The more different it is from your own language, the harder it is to learn.  This means that some English speakers who have been learning Mandarin for years still have difficulty with pronunciation; however, native speakers of languages in the same family as Mandarin would find it relatively easier to master (although different languages have different tones which do not necessarily correspond).

Discounting factors such as an individual’s innate talent for learning foreign languages or the quality of teaching, it varies according to how closely related the second language is to the learner’s native language, or to other languages they may speak (e.g. it is easier to learn French having already learned Spanish and vice versa).  Language difficulty can also be influenced by social factors. 

For instance, English’s role as a global language means that many people are immersed in English outside the classroom, hearing it in music, films or television.  Equally, in countries where many languages are spoken, such as Kenya, it might be easier to learn the official language, Swahili, which is used in education and for official purposes, than for native Swahili speakers to learn other languages.  However, these factors are very subjective and fundamentally it is difficult to argue that any language is inherently harder than another.

“Port out, starboard home”

The true origin of the word ‘posh’ is unknown, but one appealing (if completely unsubstantiated) theory is that it arose as an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home, which was supposedly printed on the tickets of passengers on P&O ships between the UK and India during the days of the British Empire.  Since both countries are in the northern hemisphere, the port side (the left-hand side when travelling east) would be on the more shaded side of the ship on the way out, while the starboard side would be shadier on the way home.  These P.O.S.H. cabins would be the best and most expensive, and allegedly the people who travelled in them were the ‘posh’ people, hence the term.

However, there are no tickets bearing the initials P.O.S.H. dating from that era and P&O state they have never issued any, although even if this was the origin of the word ‘posh’, it would not necessarily have been stamped on the tickets.  Also, there is evidence the word was used from the 1890s, whereas acronyms were rare before the 1920s.  (The word ‘acronym’ itself was not coined until the 1940s.)  Nor is there any reference to ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ in any of the many documents and literature from the days of the Raj.

One more plausible theory is that ‘posh’ might be derived from a Romany word for money or coin, which then gave the meaning ‘moneyed’, but this is also far from certain.  However, the ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ theory is widely believed, probably because the associations of the word ‘posh’ fit so neatly with our images of the British in India.

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