LINGUIST List 5.1322

Sat 19 Nov 1994

Disc: Sapir-Whorf

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  1. Douglas J. Glick, Re: "snow" 1/2

Message 1: Re: "snow" 1/2

Date: 17 Nov 1994 16:24:37 -0400Re: "snow" 1/2
From: Douglas J. Glick <>
Subject: Re: "snow" 1/2

About snow . . .

First, I should apologize to Tony for misunderstanding his cocktail advice
-- his derivation of the origins of my misunderstanding is correct.

Second, I think that quotations from Boas/Whorf are very helpful and a good
reminder to those of us in this debate.

Third, as to the question of whether or not sleet is related to snow. I
don't agree. It is, I agree, related (and would be defined in relation to)
water, but (at least I and a few other students that I asked) wouldn't
define it as a form of snow (ditto for freezing rain).

Fourth, I agree with Tony that "counting" has to be mediated by many
considerations of grammatical structure in the compared languages and
spread of the form in the speech community. But, I don't think that this
wipes out the (admittedly small, but original) point.

Fifth, I'm going to sidestep the issue over 'lexicalization' vs. 'complex
construction' because I don't think that I share the same view as others on
the importance/necessity of this distinction -- indeed, it is a bit ironic
that another implication of Sapir/Whorf is that the view that our language
is made up out of 'words' and 'grammar' (constructions) is precisely the
kind of objectification, which we would expect and which formal
distributional analyses show to be a simplification). As Jonathan states,
"figuring out just what counts as a simple,lexicalised form is *very* hard
in Yup'ik, given that it has a rich,
higly productive derivational morphology". I agree and the answer would
eventually have to draw lines along continua that I don't think will be
labelled 'lexical' vs. 'construct' (and Sapir offered some nice theoretical
machinery for these kinds of comparative distinctions too). I still see
only four 'arbitrary and unmotivated' forms that deal specifically with
'snow' (i.e., snow, slush, blizzard, flurry). I'll leave it to others to
decide whether or not various dialects of Eskimo have more or less, but
even if the point should fail here it still has life to it. So, I still
find myself agreeing with the original insight. The point -- and not all
that it has been used to argue -- has always seemed obvious to me. Perhaps
if we narrow the scope of the relevant speech community and bring it closer
to home, it is easier to see. Wouldn't we all accept the idea that _on
average_ lawyers (vs. non-lawyers) have more distinct forms for legal
concepts than do others outside this community/culture? (and, of course,
what we mean by distinct forms implies all of the complex relative
distinctions hinted at above). Similarly to take an example I know more
about, statistically speaking Arabs have more arbitrary and unmotivated
forms for camels than English speakers (even accounting for differences in
the syntactico-semantic structures of the two languages). Why does this
simple -- and to be honest relatively uninteresting -- idea seem to bother
people so much?

Douglas J. Glick
Department of Anthropology
Vassar College
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