Do British Columbians have 52 words for Marijuana?

No. But we have 178 words for rain.

Over the years, I have often heard said that the Inuit have 52 different words for snow, so for this column I decided to check it out. I phoned the Vancouver Public Library and learned that, yes, it is more or less true. A Danish linguist who studied Inuktitut had, in fact, identified 50, some examples being: sakituvuk (snow falling straight down), manguktuk (snow getting soft), and persertok (snow drifting). In addition, the linguist pointed out that Inuktitut was polysynthetic, i.e., it names things and expresses concepts by combining several words into one - the word dog-sled is an example of this phenomenon in English. In this way, the possible number of words for snow is unlimited, since, if an Inuit needed a new word, say, one for snow that pisses him off (pissimtok), he could easily coin it.

A people's vocabulary reflects what is important to them; the north being snowbound, the northern peoples have a sophisticated snow vocabulary. Similarly, Australian aboriginal dialects have a multitude of words for holes in the ground - enabling hunters to recognize the different burrows of different animals - and we have dozens of words for vehicle-types. This phenomenon has long interested linguists and philosophers because it provokes the question: "Does the language we speak shape our world-view?" Here, the question becomes: "Does the Inuit with his sophisticated snow vocabulary see a different reality than English-speaking me with my Mount-Seymour skier vocabulary of two word: slush and ice?" Linguist call this the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; the strong version of which claims that the language we speak completely shapes our world-view, and that people who speak different languages experience different and mutually incomprehensible realities.

The majority of linguists reject this version of the hypothesis, and so do I. I believe that if an Inuit hunter sat me down and explained the 50 or so types of snow he is aware of, I would eventually be able to distinguish them, much in the same way that, when I was learning French, I was eventually able to distinguish sounds that I had never noticed before. The Inuit and I both share the same reality, but the Inuit's language gives him a more precise awareness of some its aspects, e.g., his snow vocabulary makes him more observant of snow.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came to mind the other day (no kidding!) while I was browsing Webster's 9th Collegiate Dictionary, wherein I discovered that English has six words that denote "emotional excitement induced by intense displeasure": anger, ire, wrath, rage, indignation, and fury, and that each of these words has a shade of meaning that distinguishes it from the others. I'll exemplify the differences with a series of questions:

1. Which implies a righteous response to what is considered unfair: fury, indignation, or ire?

2. Which implies a desire to seek revenge: wrath, rage, or ire?

3. Which implies anger verging on madness: wrath, rage, or fury?

These synonyms intrigued me because although I realized that there are various ways I can feel angry - all of which, no doubt, I have experienced at one time or another in my life - I wouldn't have known how to precisely label what I was feeling at the time; if I were experiencing rage, I might have said "I'm really pissed off", or if fury, I might have said "I'm really bloody well pissed off." Webster's 9th contains excellent synonymy; browse it and you'll discover that English has a very diverse and precise vocabulary of mental states; for example, there are five words meaning "intense emotion compelling action"

[4. Name them.]

and five meaning "having a strong desire for material possessions."

[5. Name them.]

It seems that emotion is to English what snow is to Inuktitut.

Now for some (fast) food for thought: the Inuit have a vocabulary that makes it easier for them to notice and distinguish types of snow, i.e., that makes them more aware of an important aspect of their environment. On the other hand, I speak a language whose vocabulary can make it easier for me to notice and distinguish emotions, i.e., that can make me more aware of my mental environment. But, if I haven't mastered this vocabulary, am I capable of distinguishing my emotions, or am I, rather, restricted to experiencing different intensities of pissed-off-ness, bummed-out-ness, or upbeat-ness - the emotional equivalent of only noticing slush and ice. And if so, how aware am I of my own experience? And, for that matter, how aware are you? Here are some MooT questions that will test you.

6. Which motivates compassion: love or pity?

7. Which word best describes an irritable and impatient reformer: peevish or petulant?

8. You feel despair; what have you lost?

9. Which feeling does the sublime evoke in us: fear or awe?

10. When you are aghast, which is your predominate emotion: terror or disgust?

11. According to Voltaire, FANATICISM is to SUPERSTITION as what is to ANGER?

12. Which motivates consternation: sadness or amazement?

Answers to the MooT questions

1. indignation
2. wrath
3. fury

4. passion, fervor, ardor, enthusiasm, and zeal

5. covetous, greedy, acquisitive, grasping, and avaricious

6. Pity. Pity inclining one to be helpful or merciful is compassion, whereas love inclining one to be helpful or merciful is charity.

7. Petulant. Peevish people are irritable, whereas petulant people are irritable and impatient.

8. Hope. The mental state of someone who has completely lost hope is despair.

9. Awe. Any phenomenon that evokes awe or wonder is sublime.

10. Terror. To feel terror or amazement is to be aghast.

11. Fury. According to Voltaire's PHILOSOPHICAL DICTIONARY: "Fanaticism is to superstition what delirium is to fever, and what fury is to anger."

12. Amazement. Amazement causing mental confusion is consternation.


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When my children were very young I read an article about teaching them "an emotional vocabulary". When they were feeling strong emotions, I tried to give them the words to describe it as more than Mad, Glad, and Sad. For example, if my son was crying because he couldn't do what he was attempting, I'd say to him, "That must be frustrating." or when my daughter couldn't have a unicorn in real life, I'd say, "I guess you're pretty disappointed." Not only did I give them a good tool for dealing with their emotions, but it taught me a great deal of empathy for them!

Holly Barlow, Seattle

I really firmly believe that you have done the right thing. If you increase your colour vocabulary, the world becomes a more precisely colourful place. It follows that if you learn the precise words to describe your emotional and mental states, your understanding of yourself will be greatly refined, and it has to make you a more complex and interesting human.

Cheers, The Mootguy