Words for Snow Revisited: Languages Support Efficient Communication About the Environment-CMU News - Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Words for Snow Revisited: Languages Support Efficient Communication About the Environment

By Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 / shilo@cmu.edu

Snow Word Cloud

The claim that Eskimo languages have many words for different types of snow is well known among the public, but it has been greatly exaggerated and is therefore often dismissed by language scholars.

However, a new study published in PLOS ONE supports the general idea behind the original claim. Carnegie Mellon University and University of California, Berkeley researchers found that languages that use the same word for snow and ice tend to be spoken in warmer climates, reflecting a lower communicative need to talk about snow and ice.

“We wanted to broaden the investigation past Eskimo languages and look at how different languages carve up the world into words and meanings,” said Charles Kemp, associate professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Same Snow Term Map

For the study, Kemp and UC Berkeley’s Terry Regier and Alexandra Carstensen analyzed the connection between local climates, patterns of language use and word(s) for snow and ice across nearly 300 languages. They drew on multiple sources of data including library reference works, Twitter and large digital collections of linguistic and meteorological data.

The results revealed a connection between temperature and snow and ice terminology, suggesting that local environmental needs leave an imprint on languages. For example, English originated in a relatively cool climate and has distinct words for snow and ice. In contrast, the Hawaiian language is spoken in a warmer climate and uses the same word for snow and ice.

Different Snow Terms Map

These cases support the claim that languages are adapted to the local communicative needs of their speakers — the same idea that lies behind the overstated claim about Eskimo words for snow. The study finds support for this idea across language families and geographic areas.

“These findings don’t resolve the debate about Eskimo words for snow, but we think our question reflects the spirit of the initial snow claims — that languages reflect the needs of their speakers,” said Carstensen, a psychology graduate student at UC Berkeley.

The researchers suggest that in the past, excessive focus on the specific example of Eskimo words for snow may have obscured the more general principle behind it.

Carstensen added, “Here, we deliberately asked a somewhat different question about a broader set of languages.”

The study also connects with previous work that explores how the sounds and structures of language are shaped in part by a need for efficiency in communication.

“We think our study reveals the same basic principle at work, modulated by local communicative need,” said Regier, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.

Read the full study