LINGUIST List 5.1322

Sat 19 Nov 1994

Disc: Sapir-Whorf

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  • 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 <DOGLICKvaxsar.vassar.edu>
    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 doglickvassar.edu