“THE GREAT ESKIMO VOCABULARY HOAX”. Lauren Collins takes on “the idea that untranslatable words prove that speakers of different languages experience the world in radically different ways”. She calls the idea “dubious” and says it originates from “the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax”–the notion that Eskimo has a lot of words for snow. She cites linguists who have counted words for snow in different Eskimo languages. One linguist found about 15 different words for snow in one Eskimo language—about as many as there are in English. She quotes the caption of a carton which shows one Eskimo saying to another: “Did you know that in Hampstead they have fifty different names for bread?”

Collins does acknowledge that there are specialized words used by only a small segment of the population. She gives the example that lepidopterists use the word “puddling” for the behavior of butterflies at damp spots and the word “spinneret” for “the opening of the silk gland found on the caterpillar’s lower lip”. Similarly, I posted here recently about the precise names for different kinds of bogs and quoted Tom Shippey that: “‘language deficit leads to attention deficit. If you have no vocabulary for things, you notice them less.”

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