We've all heard the legend of the many words for "snow" in Inuktitut or other Arctic languages. It's the favorite tale of oh-so-many linguists (either "Yes, there are amazingly many words," or "No, it's all overblown and there really are just a handful"). Even Kate Bush (and Stephen Fry) addresses it in the beautifully haunting 50 Words for Snow. I've been reading the recently released Words of the Inuit: A Semantic Stroll through a Northern Culture by Louis-Jacques Dorais (which I happen to think is a rather successful example of how you can successfully address both a scholarly and a general audience in the same publication), and I think many of you will find this excerpt (from p. 23f.) interesting.

"The 'one hundred Eskimo words for snow' is a well-known although often misunderstood example of how a language enables its speakers to make very fine distinctions among sets of semantic categories that characterize important cultural elements. For some unknown reason, people who cite this example often assert that the allegedly large number of Inuit words for snow ends in a two, variously claiming thirty-two, fifty-two, or even 102 different words for defining various types of snow.

"Actually, in Nunavik Inuktitut -- and the situation is the same in other dialects -- I know of only seven words whose unique function is to denote a particular form of snow (qanik -- falling snow; masak -- wet falling snow; aputi(k) -- snow on the ground: pukka -- crystalline snow on the ground; aniu -- snow for making water; mannguq -- melting snow; sirmiq -- melting snow used as cement for the snow house).

"However, Inuit are able to distinguish between at least twenty-five -- and probably many more -- different snow conditions expressed by way of dedicated terms or through semantically more encompassing words whose meaning denotes a certain type of snow when used in specific contexts: illusaq -- material for a house, i.e., snow fit for making a snow house; maujaq -- soft ground, i.e., soft snow on the ground; kinirtaq -- something compact, i.e., damp, compact snow; aqilluqaaq -- very tender material (e.g., cooked meat), i.e., drift of soft snow; piirsituq -- it carries things away, i.e., there is a blizzard of snow.

"Ice is as important as snow to Inuit, and their language allows them to make a very large number of semantic distinctions between different types of frozen water. A dictionary of terms related to sea ice in the Inupiatun dialect of Wales, Alaska, includes more than 110 entries. Ironically, even if there probably exist more semantic distinctions for ice than for snow, only the alleged 'one hundred words for snow' are commonly heard about, possibly because in Qallunaat [=white European person] minds, Inuit are primarily identified with snow (e.g., snow houses) rather than ice."

A lot to learn here. Like our preconceptions of the "other" or the desire to see something "romantic" rather than useful (such as "charming words for snow" rather than "words for how snow can be used").

The concept of learning from other languages lies at the very heart of the Translation Insights & Perspectives tool. I just recently "discovered" that in Enlhet, a language spoken in Paraguay, "peace and security" is translated as "no news" (for when all is well there is "no news" -- see here.) It almost made me choke up. Isn't this what we all need right now? (Next week's US elections come to mind, along with many other things....)