My field, Linguistics, is a very silly field. One of things that the “scientists” in this softest of soft sciences love to do is “bust myths about linguistics.” The problem is that most of the “myths” that they bust are not even myths at all. In fact, they are more or less true!
For instance, there is the famous “Eskimo words for snow” argument. Folklore has it that the Eskimos have 50, 100 or some large number of for snow.
The brilliant leading lights of this genius profession have put on their thinking caps and decided that this is in fact a “myth.” Apparently, Eskimos actually have only ~4-5 words for snow.
Now the problem is that we get into an endless semantic debate here about the meaning of the lexical item called “word.” The linguists are playing semantic games with this definition, and this is how they arrived at their highly dubious conclusion.
The truth is this: Eskimo has only ~4-5 roots for snow. Now if you know language, you know what a root is. A root is a basic form of a word from which many other words can be built. However, the notion that only roots are words is a most peculiar one. I would like to see these brilliant linguists throw that definition of a word – “Only a root can be a word” at the editors of our leading dictionaries. Think that nutty definition will fly with them? Um, no.
So let us move away from the linguists’ daffynition of “word” towards a more sane definition of word. For now let us say that each individual bolded and indented item followed by an etiology and a definition in a major dictionary counts as a word. Now whether you want to count derived words as separate words, I have no idea and I am not sure how Oxford’s counts them either.
But the root of the matter is this: By combining those 4-5 roots with all sorts of funny and strange infixes, prefixes, suffixes and God knows what other polysynthetic morphological magic they can conjure up, you can indeed count many different specific Eskimo words for snow. There are all sorts of different words for different types of snow and ice in various conditions, states and formations. There is a specific word for just about every type of snow or ice you could possibly imagine.
All in all, there are 50-70 different words for snow and over 100 more for ice and sea ice. In addition, due to the polysynthetic nature of the language, the number of words for snow is highly productive, so people could theoretically create all sorts of new words for snow simply by sticking new affixes on or removing old ones. Although the number of potential Eskimo words for snow is probably not infinite as Pullman stated in his famous but silly article, doubtless the number of possible words is quite high.
Now leaving aside “roots” and nonsense like that, exactly how many words does English have for snow and ice of all sorts of types and consistencies? Not a whole lot. Skiers have come up with some but not a lot. Surely one cannot find over 150 different words in English describing every type of snow or ice you could possibly imagine. Yet in Eskimo you can. Because of course, their lives revolve around snow, ice, seals, blubber, igloos, wife-sharing, alcoholism and speaking an insanely convoluted polysynthetic language.
So no matter what you think of this debate, don’t you think the linguists’ position is rather idiotic? I honestly do not know why they do this myth-busting thing, unless they are a bunch of smart-asses trying to show everyone what brainiacs they are.
There are quite a few other silly things that my profession believes that also fall other this ludicrous notion of “myth-busting,” but this will be all for now. Maybe more in the future.
Expect the PC headcases from Bad Linguistics Reddit to head on over here. I am actually trying to bait those social science mush-heads into responding. They really hate me over there, but honestly, that’s a badge one should wear with pride. Hell, better than that, put it on your resume!