Have you ever heard that the Inuit language has more than 100 words for snow? Or that Chinese has no grammar? If you have, I hope you scoffed at them.
There are a lot of these one-liner “facts” about language that just aren’t true. Some of them contain little grains of truth, while others represent false conclusions about a misunderstood aspect of a language. For example, there are not 100 words for snow in the Inuit language, but it does have quite a lot of vocabulary dedicated to describing subtle variations between different kinds of snow and ice. The people who speak this language spend most of their year surrounded by the stuff, so can you really blame them for wanting more words?
Here’s what I wrote about it in my very first As a Linguist post nearly four years ago:
“The list of words for snow in various Eskimo languages can be attributed partly to their prolonged exposure to the stuff during much of the year, which means they have more time or inclination to perceive more subtle variations than we do, and thus need more words for it…Another possible cause for a legendary number of words for snow in Eskimo languages is the fact that they are highly inflective languages. If you count all the inflections of one base word, then of course the list grows. It would be like counting blizzard and blizzards as two separate words rather than one word and its plural.”
Recent evidence shows that there really are more words for snow in Yupik, the Inuit language, than there are in English, but it’s still not the 100+ that people like to claim at parties or to impress a first date.
As for silly claims like “Chinese has no grammar,” they are probably rooted in the mistaken assumption that if a foreign language does certain things very differently from a person’s native language, then that foreign language must not do it at all. Chinese doesn’t have gender distinctions? No subject-verb agreement? Flexible word order and no case markings? It must have no grammar at all! These false conclusions may often be made by someone who has actually gained a little bit of knowledge about the language under discussion. We all know, however, that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. Being only slightly informed about a subject means a person doesn’t even know enough to recognize when s/he’s wrong about that subject.
Having said that, there really are some strange things that go on in the world’s languages. These oddities are instructive to linguists who are trying to piece the whole language puzzle together, but they can also be fascinating and fun for people who aren’t linguists, but who are still curious about language.
For example, we all understand the concept of singular and plural, yes? We English speakers know that there are two sets of pronouns: those that we use when referring to only one person or object (I, you, he, she, it) and those that refer to more than one person or object (we, you, they). We don’t know how many more; we just know that it’s more than one. If I wanted to limit the number of people I’m referring to, I have to add words to the pronouns: you and I, both of you, the two of them.
Back when English was Old, however, we used to have pronouns that did that for us. This was called a dual pronoun. For example, the first person pronouns in Old English for the subject of a sentence were:
- ic, īc (I)
- wē (we)
- wit (you and I)
We clearly don’t use these pronouns anymore, though as I mentioned, we can still express the same meaning through added words. The dual was also used in a number of languages that are now extinct; among others, it was seen in Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Old Irish, and Biblical Hebrew.
There are current living languages, however, that still use this dual grammatical number in various ways, most often on pronouns, but it can also be marked on nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The most notable of these are Arabic, Slovenian, and Tagalog. Here is a more complete list of languages that have used or still use a dual grammatical number.
And now here’s a really good one-liner for your next party: J.R.R. Tolkien gave dual nouns, pronouns, and verbs to Quenya, an Elvish language he wrote for his Lord of the Rings series.
Now you know.
So keep coming back for Fun Fact Fridays so you can know even more odd facts – not myths – about language.