Words are symbols for thoughts. I know, I’m a writer. If you’ve been here before, you’ll know I often mention that I love words for the symbols they are. Words have power. This is why they have the ability to soothe or stimulate, to conjure and encourage, to maim and destroy. Words should always be chosen carefully.
I came across a book not long ago–Speeches That Changed the World by Simon Sebag Monteffiore. With their carefully chosen words, these speeches are considered to have changed the course of history. Not all of them come from rational or kind minds but they are powerful nonetheless. Some of those speeches were obviously dangerous in their day, yet they compelled people to act regardless. On this side of those world events, I think they’re worth a read if for no other reason than to remember nationalism and pride of country are two completely different things.
Words as symbols
Did you ever hear the phrase Eskimos have a 1000 words for snow? The statement is only partially true. First off, the indigenous peoples of the icy north are the Inuit and the Yupik and they speak a variety of languages with multiple dialects that fall under the umbrella of “Eskimo–Aleut”. I don’t know about 1000 words for snow, but they have a heck of a lot of words for ice. And the curious thing about it all, there are really just a handful of root words used.
Many Native American languages are polysynthetic, meaning they tend to be long because their root word is added onto with descriptor words and extra bits of nuance.
For example: Picture the word blackberry. It’s a black berry. Blackberry is a polysynthetic word.
So how many roots for snow do the Inuit have? Contrary to the myth, there are basically two: qanik for snow in the air, and aput for snow on the ground. To these add descriptors for fluffy snow, slushy snow, clumping snow, snowdrift snow, igloo-building snow, and so on. Some snow/ice words can be very long when all is said and done.
Linguist K. David Harrison, a leading specialist in the study of endangered languages, has written several books on the subject. The two I’ve read are fascinating reads. In The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages, he mentions how impressively vast, rich, and complex the Yupik language is. These peoples have words for at least 99 distinct sea ice formations. Yep, 99 words for sea ice! All I can think of is iceberg.
In The Last Speakers, Harrison refers to the Yupik language as packaging. I interpret this as packaging for thought. Imagine root words built up with the added details of experience. By packaging words, you get the whole picture down to minute detail and all presented in a useful and usable form. Where we might say melting ice pack, the Yupik language offers a single built-up word that means something like this: “Crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear.”
Whew. That’s a mouthful.
Those differences would be ultra important when your environment is that harsh. The slightest difference to the quality and tone of snow/ice/wind/weather could cost you big time. This old “Eskimo” documentary shows you just how harsh.
Language is truly amazing, even more so when you realize it’s all symbolic representation for thought. I just might do a whole blog series on that sometime.
Tomorrow ~ More!
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