Everyone knows “Eskimos have 50 words for snow.” Everyone knows that’s an urban myth. Both statements are true for appropriate values of everyone. The truth, of course and as usual, lies in the middle and is both more elusive and more nuanced.
The frosting: as with many of life’s more vexing issues, there is also a definitional component, and things depend, at least somewhat, on perspective. What constitutes a word and how does the basic language structure introduce new concepts, with new words or phrases?
But no matter because this post isn’t about the 50 words for snow.
It’s sort of about the “everyone knows” part of things, but not quite that either. It’s more about how we accept — or reject — memes and concepts from sources we perceive, explicitly or implicitly, as authoritative.
A great deal of our truth is received and then embraced as reality. This is inescapable, of course. No one has the time or background (or desire) to study everything. By necessity, much of what we “know” is received.
Ultimately what matters is how we bracket and tag this information. And that we maintain some skepticism, some sense of being from Missouri, when it comes to what we receive.
We begin lumbering down the runway with the 50 words. (Not to be confused with the 50 ways.) What’s key for me is how it’s a global meme due to one person, anthropologist Franz Boas, in the 1880s. The number 50 came later, Boas didn’t make qualitative claims. Later authors invented those from thin air (including one who put it at 100).
But “50 words for snow” has a ring to it that caught on (something about “50”), so the meme went viral long before the internet made “going viral” itself a viral meme.
In fact, memes often do come from the mind of a single person. Sometimes they’re honed over time or extended by others to resonate and spread like the proverbial wildfire (or sell like equally proverbial hotcakes if that’s tastier). Usually, though, the seed idea is due to one mind.
What Boas really said was that Eskimo-Aleut languages have roughly the same number of distinct root words for snow as English, but their language structure allows more variety in compounding those roots to form new words for specific types of snow.
The meme wasn’t much questioned until 1986 by linguist Laura Martin. The counter-meme though, the mythology of the 50 words, is due to Geoff Pullum and his 1991 paper, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The original meme was around, though, through most of the 20th century. Generations grew up believing it.
I never quite bought it. English might be just as rich if we consider combinations of words. Wet snow, fresh snow, falling snow, melting snow, wind-blown snow, large drifts of wind-blown snow, yellow snow, crunchy snow, old snow full of road grime. These are all distinct, well-known, phrases for types of snow.
They’re common enough that, if English did work by creating new words by concatenating existing ones, we’d also have distinct words for what, in English, are instead established phrases.
[English sometimes does concatenate root words: arrowhead, smokescreen, bathtub. We more typically build new word concepts from phrases, though. Possibly because English is so dynamic.]
There is also that any human endeavor focused on some area of human experience naturally evolves its own lingua franca. The sciences and the technical lingo that inevitably accompanies them is one example. (These are not, as some feel, intended as exclusionary but to facilitate precise and rich communication.)
I was never surprised, given their circumstances, that Eskimos might have more words for snow (avid winter sports fans might also). And I was never sure how true it was anyway.
So, the counter-meme went down easily for me. Yet, it turns out to also be an over-generalization.
Turns out the Eskimo-Aleut language structure allow new words from root words as general practice. They create new words in many other areas. Again, given the circumstances, no surprise they’d form new words for distinct types of snow.
Which their circumstances make them intimately familiar with, and that’s the key. It’s the familiarity with a topic that leads to distinct and nuanced ways of referring to it. It’s true of professions, social groups, and cultures.
So, because of their circumstances, the Eskimos do (sort of) have “50” words for snow (where “50” is defined as “noticeably a lot compared to cultures that don’t experience snow frequently and closely”). Of course they do.
It depends a bit on how one perceives root words and combinations versus multi-word phrase combinations that convey the same meaning. And one has to factor out the effect of intimate knowledge with the subject matter, which naturally leads to a rich conceptual vocabulary regardless of how it’s expressed in language.
Bottom line: yeah, it’s sort of true that the vocabulary is richer, but that’s largely circumstantial. Factor out the environmental influence and equate neologisms with phrases, and it is kind of a null result.
It’s true and not true. A superposition that collapses depending on how you look at it.
I should pause here to clarify what I mean by meme. I don’t mean the cute catchy poster-style graphics that bob as flotsam everywhere on the internet river (for it is a deep, wide, fast river, not a highway).
As the Wikipedia article begins:
A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme.
Exactly. And speaking of new words for things, “meme” is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins. It’s based on an Ancient Greek word for ‘imitated thing’. The word “mime” descends from the same root.
Everyone knows that Agatha Christie came up with great plots but that she wasn’t a great writer. So goes the meme. But not the reality. To the contrary, Christie was an excellent writer, a serious writer. She just wasn’t ornate, let alone stylized. Truth is, such elegant simplicity takes skill (and probably talent as well).
The meme is likely based, in part, on her huge popularity (our crab bucket mentality) but also on the way her writing utterly fails to call attention to itself.
As an aside, compare this with transparency. Elmore Leonard is a transparent writer, but his work is both ornate and stylized. It does call attention to itself, but in its structure and dialog. Which, in Leonard’s case, isn’t a bad thing; the writing is delicious.
Speaking of writing, as a second aside, when I first encountered the writer’s meme about how “It was a dark and stormy night…” was a corny awful opening phrase, I didn’t get it at first. Of course, it’s that, being night, what else would it be other than dark? But I’ve experienced nights that were bright enough to read in and nights that were utterly stygian. Night has lots of character and being dark (or not) is part of it.
So, my overall point here, never be afraid to question received knowledge (in fact, always do so). Sometimes it’s just plain wrong.
[I seem to recall a Spider Robinson (?) story that begins something like: “It was a dark and stormy night. Well, it was! …” and then proceeds with a digression similar to what I wrote above. (Where do you think I got it? I once again agree with the counter-meme.)]
The Agatha Christie can’t write good meme is an example of a harmless received belief about a remote topic. At worst, it might prevent someone from exploring her work. Abiding memes about one’s own subjects of interest can be far more limiting.
There is no better example of such than supersymmetry (SUSY), a long-held belief among some die-hard theoretical physicists. It’s the idea that the known particles all have mirror partners. Electrons have selectrons, photons have photinos, etc. (My favorite is the wino, the supersymmetric partner to the W-bosons.)
But after decades of searching, no evidence of SUSY particles. Worse, we’ve explored all the energy regions where they’re likely to be. (Note that we did find the up-to-that-point-theoretical Higgs boson this way.)
But the die-hards keep their dream alive by moving the goal posts to higher and higher energy regimes. To some extent, that’s an arms race that never ends. (It’s very difficult to prove definitely positively absolutely for sure there are no black swans.)
Why does SUSY persist? Probably, in part, because some SUSY particles, WIMPs, are excellent candidates for dark matter (a major current physics mystery with two competing memes: cold dark matter and MOND).
SUSY is also important, in fact required, for string theory, an almost canonical example of a viral science meme. The string theory meme rises to the level of being a cult or religion. People who believe in it don’t question it and get very upset when it is questioned.
The problem is that it’s an elegant idea but applying it to the real world has so far proved elusive. One of its greatest contributions, the AdS/CFT correspondence assumes anti-de Sitter space (the AdS part), but it’s believed we live in a de Sitter space. The holographic principle that’s associated with AdS/CFT, likewise, applies to a space we don’t seem to live in.
According to Peter Woit in his 2006 book, Not Even Wrong, mathematicians don’t think string theory is math because it lacks rigor. Physicists don’t think it’s physics because it makes no predictions and can’t be tested. Both groups assume someone is making sense of it all.
It’d be funny except for the vast amounts of money, university departments, and many careers, involved. It’s become a very powerful, self-preserving meme. It’s a powerful illustration of groupthink and our tendency to fully embrace memes from perceived authoritative sources.
Of course, any authority can be wrong.
In his book, Woit talks about the Bogdanov brothers. The events surround them are an extreme case of a blind acceptance of supposed scientific authority. One that led to lawsuits and the revamping of publication editorial departments. Suffice to say that PhDs and published work should not be taken at face value.
[One helpful attribute is how many of a person’s peers regard and respect their work (whatever that may be). The counterbalance is peers who don’t. If even those who disagree respect a person, that says a lot about that person’s credence. Roger Penrose, for example, is widely respected even by those who disagree with him.]
Speaking of Penrose (whom I see as a modern Einstein), his 2016 book, Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy, explores in detail how memes can derail science. The first section is about how string theory became such a pervasive fashion that it all but took over modern theoretical physics.
The persistence of unhelpful memes is exactly why it is often said that science proceeds one dead scientist at a time. The young are more open to new memes, but they’re also susceptible to bad ones. The wisdom of age can close the mind, but it also makes it harder to be fooled.
I’ll leave you with a link to one of my favorite xkcd cartoons, a wonderful statement about stuff “everyone knows.”
This is exactly how the world should be.
It may be a meme, or it may be reality, but everyone knows Stuart Aken once wrote that, “Knowledge, like money and muck (manure), serves us best when spread evenly.” The internet tells me so.
Whether he did or not, the sentiment is certainly valid. Knowledge is the antidote for false memes, so spread that shit around.
Stay memetic, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.