Saturday, January 26, 2008

Academic style urban legend

Have you heard that the Inuit(Eskimo) have dozens of words for snow? It is an urban legend given us by an amateur linguist named Benjamin Whorf, whose day job was that of a fire inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. Whorf was considered brilliant in his hobby of native languages, but it turns out he was often wrong.
It really isn't wrong, just a misrepresentation. Any language has many words for concepts like precipitation. We could list include flurry, blizzard, drift, drizzle, sleet, thunderstorm, squall, tempest, gale, slush, hail, etc. I'm really going to stop, but you can list lots more words that mean rain or snow.
I got this from a book by an academic named Steven Pinker, called The Language Instinct. He said this is like a printer having multiple words for fonts, which doesn't strike us unusual at all.

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