Environments can affect language, but not the way you think

EALL KNOWS Eskimos have dozens if not hundreds of words to refer to snow due to their intimate knowledge of their surroundings. Except that not everyone can “know” this, because knowledge requires that a statement be true. In fact, the Eskimo Snow Story is a factoid, a word coined by Norman Mailer for a funny, crudely factual object that is not, in fact, a fact, in the same way that a “spheroid” is. is not quite a sphere.

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Eskimos (or Inuit, as most prefer to be called) don’t really have hundreds of words for snow due to their keen sense of its variety. Rather, they have a virtually endless supply of words for everything, due to the nature of their languages. Inuit languages ​​allow lexical roots to be chained together to form long and very specific words, some of which could form an entire sentence in English. “Snow that has turned gray after being trampled on several times”, a nominal expression in English, could be a single word in Inuit. But the number of basic snow-related roots is not much larger than the number of snow words in English.

For many linguists, the story of Eskimo snow has become the example of an embarrassing and exotic fairy tale about an unknown culture, conveyed by those who know nothing about it. It is also the paradigmatic example of the hypothesis of some sort of mystical connection between language, land and culture – which crumbles under scrutiny.

Today, efforts to establish links between language and the environment are more respectful. A linguist has observed that languages ​​with certain rare consonants (called ejectives) are more prevalent at high altitudes, perhaps because they are easier to pronounce at low atmospheric pressure. Another team found that languages ​​that use tones (i.e. changes in pitch) in their vowels, to distinguish one word from another, are linked to humid climates. This is allegedly because moisture helps the vocal cords to produce sound. These causal relationships are not always accepted by other researchers.

Recently, however, a large study of colored words around the world has found a clear link between geography and vocabulary. Color is a classic case of spectrum. There’s no sharp divide between, say, blue and teal, and cultures divide the continuum in different ways. Some languages ​​only have two words related to color, for light and dark. Two linguists, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, wrote in the 1960s that if they have a third, it’s almost always for red; a fourth and a fifth are usually for green and yellow.

Blue only comes sixth in the Berlin-Kay scheme, basic as it sounds. Other than the sky and the sea, however, there is little blue in nature, which may make the word less necessary; no one rarely says “look for a blue plant” because they are rare. Many languages ​​group together blue and green, a part of the spectrum that linguists call “crane.”

The new study breaks new ground by finding that there is indeed a link between the use of crane words and the environment, especially the sun. Populations exposed to a lot of sun are more likely to speak of “cranes”, note Mathilde Josserand, Emma Meeussen, Asifa Majid and Dan Dediu. One possible reason is that long-term exposure to ultraviolet light can cause changes in the retina that make it harder to distinguish blue from green.

Researchers tested a host of other theories to explain the presence of a “crane” term, and found a weaker but still interesting connection to culture, rather than physiology. They found that larger populations were more likely to have a distinct “bruise”. Population size, they speculate, is a reasonable approximation of cultural complexity – the kind, for example, that would lead cultures to develop dyeing techniques, and thus create artificially blue objects.

This is the first study to test so many of these hypotheses to see which ones hold the best. It’s an admirable approach, reducing the chances of a chance discovery, the type that pops up all the time when researchers scour databases for related variables. (One of these efforts found a connection between acacias and tonal languages, a connection that’s quite difficult to explain.)

The limitation is that the thing being tested (eg if there is a separate word for “blue”) must be simple enough, in order to compare very different languages. But the strength of this method is that it produces conclusions which, if you drop them into a cocktail conversation, are more likely to be legitimate. Fun facts only really are when they are, indeed, facts.

Read more from Johnson, our language columnist:
Green light or green light? Gas or gas? (November 13, 2021)
How the Rosetta Stone was deciphered (October 30, 2021)
Why you have an accent in a foreign language (October 16, 2021)

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “A Kind of Blue”

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