Cultural vocabularies: how many words do the Inuits have for snow?
The Inuits are not alone in having many words to describe a thing that preoccupies them, patterns occur in the vocabularies of many cultures
• Adam Jacot de Boinod
• theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 April 2014 17.00 AEST
‘Nakhur’ is the Persian word for ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’. Photograph: Michal Sleczek/Getty Images/Flickr RF
It is informative to look at where the preponderance of words fall within a language.
We all know about the somewhat apocryphal plethora of Inuit words for snow (many of which describe the varying stages of the melting process) but it is undoubtedly true that the Hawaiians have 65 words alone for describing fishing nets, 108 for sweet potato, 42 for sugarcane and 47 for bananas (the basic food stuffs). Scotland goes into extraordinary distinctions for foul weather, Somali have a huge number of words for camels (many of which depict their different basic feeding and sexual practices) and likewise the Greeks have a range of expressions for face slapping and the Baniwa tribe of Brazil 29 words for ants and their edible varieties.
Take the Shona speaking people of Zimbabwe. They are chiefly an agricultural people making the most from cultivating the plateau but they have very specialised verbs for different kinds of walking: chakwair, through a muddy place making a squelching sound;dowor, for a long time on bare feet; svavair, huddled, cold and wet; minair, with swinging hips; pushuk, in a very short dress; shwitair, naked; seser, with the flesh rippling; and tabvuk, with such thin thighs that you seem to be jumping like a grasshopper rather than walking.
Of course, as some words express all that is germane to a certain climate, one wouldn’t expect English to have a word like hanyauka (from the Rukwangali language of Namibia) meaning to walk on tiptoe on warm sand. Nor indeed would one expect thankfully many local concepts to be imported into British life. One won’t find an equivalent for mmbwe (from the Venda language of South Africa) meaning a round pebble taken from a crocodile’s stomach and swallowed by a chief or indeed, my favourite example of all: nakhur the Persian word for “a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled”.
What is so interesting is that there are a number of commonalities if not universal sentiments that are expressed in the much smaller vocabularies of the world’slanguages. Persian brings us mahj to define looking beautiful after a disease and wo-mba, from Bakweri a language from Cameroon, the smiling in sleep by children ortermangu-mangu, the Indonesian for “sad and not sure what to do”.
If we look at something as universal as the range of colours, 21 languages have distinct words for black, red and white only; eight have those colours plus green; then the sequence in which additional colours are brought into languages is yellow, with a further 18 languages, then blue (with six) and finally brown (with seven). As with colours, so with the rainbow. The Bassa people of Liberia see only two colours: ziza(red/orange/yellow) and hui (green/blue/purple) in their spectrum. The Shona of Zimbabwe see four: cipsuka (red/orange), cicena (yellow and yellow-green), citema(green-blue) and cipsuka again (the word also represents both the purple end of the spectrum). It is just Europeans and the Japanese who see seven colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
The differing of cultural attitudes towards time are well articulated by their vocabularies. While so many of the claims of languages to have no words for “such and such” are apocryphal, it is only in Panjabi that they have a word parson meaning either the day before yesterday or the day after tomorrow. The notion of 24 distinct hours is irrelevant to the Zarma people of Western Africas who use wete to cover mid-morning (between nine and 10); the Chinese use wushi to mean 11 to one; and the Hausa of Nigeria azahar takes in the period from 1.30pm to around three. The Samoans’ wordafiafi covers both late afternoon and evening, from about 5pm till dark. In Hindi pal is a measure of time equal to 24 seconds and ghari is a small space of time (24 minutes).
Even in Europe, with its relatively common linguistic heritage, national individuality is healthily expressed in idioms carrying the same meaning but vastly different and locally inspired usages. English talks of “carrying coal to Newcastle” while Germans say Eulen nach Athen tragen (taking owls to Athens), Italian has vendere ghiaccio agli eschimesi(selling ice to the Eskimos), Spanish describes it as es como llevar naranjas a Valencia(like taking oranges to Valencia) and Hungarian vizet hord a Dunába (taking water to the Danube).
Instinctive reactions might be thought to be limited to one kind of vocal range of expression. But if we touch a boiling kettle around the world, the exclamation denoting pain has many varieties. In Korea you say aiya! in the Philippines aruy! and in Franceaië! In Russian you cry oj! In Danish it’s uh! and in Germany auwa!
Likewise the way we articulate animal sounds makes one think we all hear differently. Frogs in Afrikaans go kwaak-kwaak, amongst the Munduruku tribe of Brazil:korekorekore while in Argentinian Spanish: berp.
What has taken me five deep years of research delving into over 700 dictionaries of the world has been this attempt to discover the extent to which the world’s tribes are different from or similar to each other in their articulation and that there is no real formulaic answer, indeed what is likely to be the case is as often as not the reverse.
Much has been undertaken in recent years in linguistic anthropology. Famously the Sapir-Whorf theories from the early 20th century argue that language determines and limits thought or, as is currently more widely accepted, that linguistic categories influence both thought and some non-language behaviour but don’t however limit cognitive capability. Now, in linguistic anthropology, there is a whole area exploring this while recently the focus has tended to look more at social identities, interactions and shared ideologies.