English Has Over 1.5 Billion Meanings for the Word Snow

I was once at an Elvis Costello concert where he told the audience that the first song he ever wrote was in the key of E minor. It was called “‘Winter’”, he added, his ominous tone of voice getting a laugh. The joke turned on our shared understanding of the meaning of the word “winter”–not just its narrow dictionary definition, but the way in which we could imagine it being deployed by a budding adolescent songwriter to evoke the coldness of the world.

In part it is the realization that the workings of language can be this subtle while at the same time individual languages are so markedly different had led many people to speculate that the language one speaks profoundly shapes the way one perceives the world. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which persists despite linguists’ attempts to dispel it. (See John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax for a recent corrective.) At its most naive it takes the form of observations that language X has no word for Y, and at its most famous extrapolations from the untrue factoid that Eskimo speakers have over 80 words for snow. Though these examples are easily mocked, Whorfianism can retreat behind the camouflage of subtlety. Maybe our language doesn’t shape our perception at the level of gross meaning, but at the level of subtle connotation speakers of different languages still do live in different worlds.

After all some things really are untranslatable. You may be able to ask for directions on the Paris metro with the aid of a phrasebook, but in order to fully appreciate the poetry of Rimbaud you’ll have to break down and learn French. As evidence against the reality-warping effects of a linguistic frame, linguists are fond of pointing out bilingual speakers’ heads’ stubborn refusal to explode, but plenty of bilinguals will attest to a fundamental incommensurability between the tongues they speak. Sure, one might say, English is fine for getting by in daily life, but to express deep emotion only the Italian of their childhood will do. What if Elvis Costello went on tour in Australia, gamely acquired some facility at one of the aboriginal languages, told his winter joke to a group of native speakers, and had it fall flat because their word for “winter” means something slightly different? Might we take this as evidence they inhabit a different linguistic reality?

The standard linguist’s objection to these sorts of claims is to say they’ve got it backwards. It’s not language that shapes one’s worldview, but rather worldview that shapes one’s language. Obviously cultural differences influence all manner of human behavior: why should language be any different? My hypothetical aboriginals’ failure to get Costello’s joke is not due to some mysterious property of their lexicon, but simply because music, weather, and adolescence differ in Australia versus London. But the interaction is complicated here and can lead into a chicken-and-egg conundrum, so consider a different tack.

Grant that language-specific shades of meaning, the untranslatability of poetry, the general sense that different languages feel different–all this really is evidence for a kind of linguistic relativity separate from mere cultural difference. So though they inhabit the same world by virtue of inhabiting the same planet, Japanese and English monolinguals also inhabit slightly different worlds because of the different ways they frame their innermost thoughts. This isn’t implausible, but if we’re going to entertain that idea we should follow it all the way through. What about an English speaker and a French speaker? Would their worldviews be linguistically closer because their languages are more closely related? What about a Canadian and a Scot? An American with a Boston accent and an American with a Texas accent? What about two siblings who, though presumably linguistically very similar, will not over their lifetimes have been exposed to an identical set of utterances?

There are approximately 1.5 billion speakers of English in the world today. They all know the word “snow”, but for all of them it will bring up different memories, evoke different images, and land differently when employed as poetic imagery. At the very least the sound “snow” will trigger responses in different sets of neurons, one for each individual English-speaking skull. And yet we agree that there is an (admittedly hazy) sense in which the meaning of “winter” is the same for all English speakers, so a proponent of linguistic relativism has to additionally characterize the way that sameness noticeably breaks down at the (also hazy) boundary between languages. Otherwise we’re left saying that it’s not language that causes us all of us to inhabit different worlds. It’s just our brains.

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