Language in the News, Names

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow-pocalypse!

Scene from today's typical lake effect snowfall
Scene from today’s typical lake effect snowfall

This morning my backyard had less than an inch of snow. Currently it has about 8 inches. In Buffalo New York, this is a nuisance. But in Washington, DC, where the threat of snow is enough to cause widespread closures of schools and federal offices, the same amount of snow would be a snow-pocalypse, snow-maggedon, a snow-tastrophe!!!

And this reminded me of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as “linguistic relativity.”

What?

Well, one of the most widely recalled (and ultimately disproven) examples of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that Eskimos have over 100 words for snow. They don’t. But while the languages we speak may not limit our understanding of the world, they do influence it (possibly in our saving habits). And our own understanding of certain words or ideas definitely depends on things like culture and geography.

So when I call something a “snowstorm,” my understanding of what that means may be radically different from someone from say, Virginia, and is probably closer to what someone from Michigan means when they say “snowstorm.”

But while the amount of snow may be different, our reactions to the situation are probably pretty similar: concern over traveling safely, adding time to a commute, etc.

What’s more interesting to me are cases where a language changes your perspective based on how it explains the world. An example I found early in my study of linguistics talks about how certain languages that assign genders to objects may influence preferences for gendered personifications. An example in the article talks about how there was a preference for assigning a female voice to forks because the French word for fork is feminine. Or how certain languages are “geocentric” rather than “egocentric” when it comes to giving directions. This means that instead of using the subject or object as ground zero, using terms like “in front of” or “behind” or “to your left,” these languages use the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west).

These kinds of articles and experiments remind us that it’s important to recognize that there are different ways of experiencing the world and our place in it, and then we can have a greater appreciation for the diversity and arbitrariness of language.

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