Words for snow revisited: Languages support efficient communication about the environment

Words for snow revisited: Languages support efficient communication about the environment
Carnegie Mellon University and UC Berkeley researchers found a connection between temperature and snow and ice terminology, suggesting that local environmental needs leave an imprint on languages. For example, English originated in a relatively cool climate and has distinct words for snow and ice. In contrast, the Hawaiian language is spoken in a warmer climate and uses the same word for snow and for ice. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

The claim that Eskimo languages have many words for different types of snow is well known among the public, but it has been greatly exaggerated and is therefore often dismissed by scholars of language.

However, a new study published in PLOS ONE supports the general idea behind the original claim. Carnegie Mellon University and University of California, Berkeley researchers found that languages that use the same word for snow and tend to be spoken in warmer climates, reflecting lower communicative need to talk about snow and ice.

"We wanted to broaden the investigation past Eskimo languages and look at how different languages carve up the world into and meanings," said Charles Kemp, associate professor of psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

For the study, Kemp, and UC Berkeley's Terry Regier and Alexandra Carstensen analyzed the connection between local climates, patterns of use and word(s) for snow and ice across nearly 300 languages. They drew on multiple sources of data including library reference works, Twitter and large digital collections of linguistic and meteorological data.

The results revealed a connection between temperature and snow and ice terminology, suggesting that local environmental needs leave an imprint on languages. For example, English originated in a relatively cool climate and has distinct words for snow and ice. In contrast, the Hawaiian language is spoken in a warmer climate and uses the same word for snow and for ice. These cases support the claim that languages are adapted to the local communicative needs of their speakers—the same idea that lies behind the overstated claim about Eskimo words for snow. The study finds support for this idea across language families and geographic areas.

Words for snow revisited: Languages support efficient communication about the environment
The claim that Eskimo languages have many words for different types of snow is well known among the public, but it has been greatly exaggerated and is therefore often dismissed by scholars of language. However, a new study published in PLOS ONE supports the general idea behind the original claim. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

"These findings don't resolve the debate about Eskimo words for snow, but we think our question reflects the spirit of the initial snow claims—that languages reflect the needs of their speakers," said Carstensen, a psychology graduate student at UC Berkeley.

The researchers suggest that in the past, excessive focus on the specific example of Eskimo words for may have obscured the more general principle behind it.

A song by Kate Bush counts 50 real and imagined words for snow.

Carstensen added, "Here, we deliberately asked a somewhat different question about a broader set of languages."

The study also connects with previous work that explores how the sounds and structures of language are shaped in part by a need for efficiency in communication.

"We think our study reveals the same basic principle at work, modulated by local communicative need," said Regier, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.


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More information: PLOS ONE , dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151138
Journal information: PLoS ONE

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Apr 13, 2016
that languages reflect the needs of their speakers


In the question of different words, is vocabulary or even jargon and dialect the same thing as language?

Apr 13, 2016
The relevance of using a single word for each thing described is greatly exaggerated. In English speaking countries, those who live in cold climates or who go skiing simply use phrases for the various types of snow (eg dry powdery snow) or borrow words that describe similar phenomena eg 'powder', 'slush' and 'ice' for snow that is fine grained like a powder, wet and watery or hard and slippery like ice.

Within the same demographic one finds people using one word or many to cover various related phenomena or objects depending on the degree of the individual's intellect or experience with the subject. For instance people may use 'picture' to describe photos, oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and other visual media even though separate words exist. One does not have to study Inuit language to find the difference between detailed discrete and general descriptors, they exist within English and for the same reason: utility, necessity and intellectual perspicacity.

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