Ideas that add up #52

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 out next time anyone tells you that Eskimo has a hundred words for snow.

David Bellos in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything

The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax was apparently first debunked by academic paper in 1986. Among other things, the fact that Inuit languages are agglutinative, adding suffixes and prefixes to the stem-word to indicate qualities and roles, means that “Inuits have uncountably many ‘words’ for everything.” For example, the Inuit word for “I never said I wanted to go to Paris” is allegedly: “parimunngauniralauqsimanngittunga”.

Just last month, however, the Hoax was un-debunked (rebunked?). As this New Scientist article points out, peoples of the Arctic littoral really do have dozens, even hundreds of names for different types of snow, unsurprisingly, and also for different types of sea ice, while the Sami of Northern Scandinavia have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. “There is even a Sami word to describe a [reindeer] bull with a single, very large testicle: busat.”

I’ve heard somewhere, source untraceable, that the flipside to the snow story is that there are only a couple of Inuit words for “flower” — for all flowers, that is. Or would that be the start of a whole new Vocabulary Hoax?

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