Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Kate Bush, Eskimos and snow words

It's a well-known linguistic myth that 'Eskimos have [insert high number here] words for snow'. This has been conclusively shown to be stupid*, and I think a lot of people now know this. But it's still a nice little 'factoid' and Kate Bush has made good use of it in her new album, 50 words for snow. Via Language Log, which documents this sort of thing, I found out about the album and now a link to listen to the song online.

Ben Zimmer at LL has put the link, together with the lyrics, online in a nice blogpost on the topic. The title song features Stephen Fry speaking the titular 50 words (English words and phrases, not Eskimo - although there is a Klingon one) and the results are really quite beautiful. The words are a mix of nice-but-nonsense and witty, like blown from polar fur, spangladasha and icyskidski.

*For many reasons, argued persuasively by Laura Martin some years ago. For instance, what do you mean by Eskimo? It's kind of a blanket term for a group of languages. What do you mean by 'word'? That family of languages is polysynthetic, which means there's a heck of a lot of affixes and you can make many words from a single root. In fact, a single 'word' can actually be a whole sentence, making the number of 'words' presumably infinite.

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