The Polyglot – Edition 1 with CFN’s newest columnist Dr. Allyson Eamer

The Polyglot – Edition 1 with CFN’s newest columnist Dr. Allyson Eamer

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CFN – I am in a great line of work. Sociolinguistics is the study of how social factors impact on how we use language and how language changes over time. There is no end to the list of fascinating topics that sociolinguists address. Should immigrants keep their language after immigrating to Canada? Can endangered languages be saved? Why are some people more adept than others at learning languages? How are Canada’s First Nations languages being revitalized? Is it true that ‘Eskimos’ have dozens of words for snow? Is immersion really the best way to learn a language? What happens when two languages come into contact? What does the way you speak reveal about your social class? Why did English borrow words from other languages? What is the difference between a pidgin and a creole? Do kids really learn languages faster than adults? Are some accents considered more desirable than others? Are bilingual people smarter?

I am willing to bet that there are at least 5 topics in the list above that interest you! The reality is that we’re all intrigued with language because we all speak a language, or two or three. That’s what so great about sociolinguistics. Pretty much everyone is interested in what I do for a living, making me a great guest to have at your dinner party.

With a little luck, there won’t be snow around for us to talk about much longer, so perhaps I’ll launch this column by dealing with the issue of the number of ‘Eskimo’ words for snow. First a little history:

For several decades now, linguists have argued about whether or not there is a relationship between the way a language is structured and the way its speakers understand the world. This is known as linguistic determinism or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis after the two researchers whose work brought this concept to popular attention. Let me give you an example.

LanguageCultureI have discovered that people from many different language backgrounds are aghast that English has so few ways of differentiating levels of affection; or as one German woman explained to me, “I can’t believe you Canadians say ‘I love my mother; I love ice cream; and I love rock ’n roll.’” In German, as in many other languages, one uses different verbs when talking about affection for a lover and talking about the pleasure derived from chocolate, for example. So if we applied the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis to this example, one could jump to some erroneous conclusions about English speakers i.e. English speaking people are incapable of feeling deep love since they’ve never needed to create a unique verb for their feelings for people OR English speaking people have such profoundly intense affection and appreciation for everything that they only need one verb to express all positive feelings. Do you see where I am going with this?

Another real life example is that Albanians have many nuanced ways to describe facial hair on men, whereas we have only a few: moustache, beard, sideburns, whiskers, goatee etc. So according to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, if you were born into an Albanian speaking world, your language would shape you in such a way that you’d attach a great deal of importance to men’s facial hair. Or to put it in a more scholarly fashion: we organize and label the phenomena of our worlds based on their social and cultural relevance for us.

Are you still with me? If you’re still reading this, you’ve likely got sufficient interest in the topic to have heard of Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker. These two brilliant linguists have argued against linguistic determinism, and insist that all observers of the universe are capable of arriving at the same conclusions about the world and how to act within it, regardless of what language they use to describe it. What do you think?

file000988431945Back to the matter of Eskimos and snow… and yes I do know that we no longer refer to the indigenous people in Canada’s Far North as ‘Eskimos’. I use the older term here because it is so widely associated with the snow adage. This notion that the ‘Eskimo’ languages contain more words for snow than does English, is intrinsically compelling, but in fact it is quite flawed. Here is why: if one considers words with common roots as independent words (i.e. snow, snowed, snowing), or compound words as independent words (i.e. snowbank, snowdrift, snowflake) then English contains an equally large number of words for snow. What is central to understanding this debate, is that Inuit languages (and many indigenous languages in North America) are polysynthetic. Don’t give up yet….let me explain.

In English, we communicate through sentences. (Remember grade 6 grammar class? Subject, Verb, Object; Cats chase mice; the doer- the action- the recipient of the action). In Inuit languages, the concept of a sentence does not exist. Rather, Inuit people speak in very long words that typically have a verb (or sometimes a noun) at their centre. Do you remember learning about prefixes and suffixes? Do you remember how we can take the root word ‘place’ and add a prefix to make it ‘misplace’ or a suffix to make it ‘placement’? Well Inuit word-sentences work in a similar way. You start with a verb, and then you add letters in front and at the end of the verb. These are called inflections and they work the same way prefixes and suffixes do. When added to the verb, these inflections transform it into what we would call a full sentence. So while in English, we might say: “It began snowing last night”; in any of the Inuit languages it would look more like this:

abcSNOWxyz

a few letters that mean past continuous tense + SNOW + a few letters to indicate last night

So can you see the source of confusion? Every time an utterance was made that had the Inuit word snow in it, the researchers misinterpreted it as a different word for snow, when in fact, it was actually just a different word-sentence.

WordsThink about this for a minute. If you live in a city of high rise concrete buildings, do you have an exhaustive list of words to describe different types of concrete: a word for grey toned concrete, another for white concrete, another still for beige and smooth and cracked? In fact, I’d venture to say that most of us don’t even notice the concrete at all, let alone care about being precise in describing it. Why then would the Inuit people need dozens of words for snow? In short, the features of one’s environment do not necessarily reveal themselves in a more highly nuanced lexicon.

FootstepsSo if, in these last remaining weeks of winter, you hear this again: “Did you know that the Eskimos have like a ba-jillion words for snow?!” you can respond with “Actually that’s a myth. The source of the confusion is that the Inuit speak polysynthetic languages, so the linguistic determinism theory does not apply here.” They may look at you strangely. They may even yawn. But I guarantee you that shortly afterwards, they’ll be repeating what you told them at a dinner party somewhere.

 

Allyson Eamer, Ph.D. is a Cornwall native, a sociolinguist and university professor in Toronto.

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37 Comments on "The Polyglot – Edition 1 with CFN’s newest columnist Dr. Allyson Eamer"

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PJ Robertson
Member

Welcome to CFN, Dr. Eamer.

Here’s a question for you: Why is correct use of language (word choice, spelling, grammar, syntax) important?

Mary Anne Pankhurst
Member

Do you really mean Eskimos or The Inuit?

David Oldham
Guest

Jimmy read the article again, the answer lies within.

Mary Anne Pankhurst
Member

I had no interest to go further, frankly. The word Eskimo is often considered a pejorative term. Besides, as a skim, the sentences that rise to the top are: I have a great job and I’m great at dinner parties.

David Oldham
Guest
I apologize Jimmy, your veiled question I perceived was an attempt to make a petty point. I had no prior knowledge of you being so sensitive, given the insensitivity of your response to an otherwise informative article by a new contributor. Eskimo is a collective term. Outside of a handful of Canadians the term is used and acknowledged widely and to the best of my understanding accepted as having no connection to any form of disrespect. You certainly have the right to interpret anything as you see fit. However given the discipline of the contributor I choose to defer to… Read more »
David Oldham
Guest

Thank Dr. Eamer. I found your information enlightening and look forward to further contributions.

Mary Anne Pankhurst
Member

@ David, my question wasn’t veiled. It was pretty bare faced. I also realize these terms are hotly debated in certain circles, including academic. I would say, however, that Inuit is correctly used by more than a “handful” of Canadians. I do agree with your point about the columnist’s specialty. I don’t presume she meant any prejudice. It’s just that I don’t read on if a columnist doesn’t grab me in the first bit.
http://www.usaonrace.com/labels-stereotypes/don’t-call-me-eskimo-ethnic-origins-word-symbolizes-painful-past

Wow!
Guest

I just got back from a trip to Quebec. Everyone spoke broken languages and got along. What do you think about girls having to leave Cornwall to find work if they are not francophone first. Nothing to do with above, and I still had a crush on you in high school.

David Oldham
Guest
Again Jimmy, no disrespect intended but comprehension of written material seems not to be the source of your strength. I made no such reference to a handful of Canadians using the word Inuit correctly. The reference pertains to the wide acceptance of the collective term “Eskimo” has having no prejudicial implication. The word “Eskimo” doesn’t refer to an individual it is a collective term referring to groups of people relating to origin and location. However Jimmy, best to confer with a sociolinguistics expert such as Dr. Allyson Eamer for meaningful enlightenment rather than rely on unreliable/biased internet sources. Let’s move… Read more »
Reg Coffey
Member

Suddenly the grammar and spelling of these posts have improved logarithmically. Thank you Dr. Eamer for your well written informative column…….. and reviving a romantic memory for WOW!.

Mary Anne Pankhurst
Member
David you state: Eskimo is a collective term… (which) …to the best of my understanding…no connection to any form of disrespect. OK, well negro and negroid used to be a widely accepted “collective terms” as well. Even mongoloid was once a widely accepted collective term for people with Down’s. Point is, the columnist clearly states half-way through (I went back and looked) “….yes I do know that we no longer refer to the indigenous people in Canada’s Far North as “Eskimos” So to put it gently, you’re kinda disagreeing with the columnist, and worse, dismissing peoples’ loathing over what they… Read more »
David Oldham
Guest
Jimmy your comprehension skills are astounding. Please stop reading between the lines and focus on what was said. Dr. Eamer does not say that the term Eskimo was derogatory she simply stated that it was an ” older term “. So in no way am I ” disagreeing with the columnist ” Words fall out of favour for a multitude of reasons suffice to say Jimmy. I did not minimize anyone’s “loathing” as you went on. As I previously stated, Jimmy, ” You certainly have the right to interpret anything as you see fit.” I am not responsible for anyone’s… Read more »
AllyCat
Guest
@ P J Robertson Great question! Thanks for asking it! I will give you a brief answer and then take the issue up in a future column (Brilliant idea for a future post! – again, thank you!) In a nutshell, there are 2 widely argued justifications for a rigid adherence to standard spelling and grammar conventions. One is given by the folks I’ll call the ‘Purists’, and the other by folks I’ll call the ‘Classists’. I’ll simply present their arguments, and then perhaps you’ll let me know which, if either, you find compelling. The ‘purists’ maintain that when a language… Read more »
AllyCat
Guest
@ Jimmy Olsen Thanks for bringing a spirit of controversy to my column…might be good for attracting readers. I will happily address your concern with my use of the word Eskimo in my column. Firstly let me tell you about a writing technique that scholars in my discipline, and likely others as well, make use of to distance themselves from a word or phrase they don’t normally use and/or to indicate to the reader that the author does not share the commonly held understanding of a word. If you have another look at my article, you will note that each… Read more »
AllyCat
Guest

@ David Oldham
I bet your friends nominate you annually for the “Most Loyal Friend” award. Thank you for advocating for a balanced approach to reading my article. I am truly happy that you are enjoying my column.
Allyson

AllyCat
Guest

@ Reg Coffey
Thanks for the nod but look who’s talking! I think YOU’RE the one with the admirable writing skills, since personally, I have never used the word “logarithmically” in a sentence.
Ally

admin
Admin

Alright, I think I’m starting to have a crush on Allyson too like our friend Wow! 🙂

AllyCat
Guest
@ Wow Regarding the high school crush, thank you. Regarding anglophones having a hard time finding jobs in Cornwall, I have a feeling you (and many others) may not like what I have to say on that point. Frankly I am embarrassed by how many anglo Canadians lament the need to learn French. There are few countries in the world whose inhabitants cannot get by in at least two languages. Most Asians know three or four. So do most Europeans and most Africans. It is the most exhilarating experience in the world to sit at a table where multiple languages… Read more »
The Watcher
Member
Very interesting article. I do have two comments, however. Why do we have to use foreign words instead of English ones. One example is using the Japanese tsunami instead of “tidal wave.” Another is referring to the Chinese capital city as “Beijing” instead of Peking, or the centre of the Indian film industry as Mumbai (sp?) rather than Bombay. After all, when we talk about a particular German city that was once a Roman colony, we say Cologne, rather than Koln (sorry, can’t figure out how to do an umlaut). Also, why has it become fashionable to say “myself” rather… Read more »
The Watcher
Member

Sorry, there should have been a after tsunami.

Mary Anne Pankhurst
Member

Chomsky and Pinker would have a hey day with these responses.

Thank you for the invaluable lesson in the use of parentheses but I think I learned about them the same day my Grade 4 teacher covered prefixes and suffixes.

Reg Coffey
Member

Richard, you can get an o with an umlaut by holding the “ALT” key down and pressing 148, ö. It’s the ASCII code that has been used for as long as I have been using computers, and I used a VIC 20 when it was new.

David Oldham
Guest
Dr. Eamer I agree that the pejorative interpretation of the word ‘Eskimo’ is problematic. In the early 80’s a family friend, David Zimmerly returned home from a two year mission up north, where if my memory serves me correctly, he became the first non ‘Eskimo’ to be able to build a kayak using traditional methods of construction. Hence my understanding of ‘Eskimo’ being a collective term. As you are no doubt aware indigenous people of Alaska find the term Inuit to describe northern people as a group pejorative. The same could now perhaps be said of the indigenous people of… Read more »
PJ Robertson
Member

@ Allycat

Thank you for your kind response and the helpful distinctions between “purist” and “classist.”

Where do I stand on this? Neither a “purist” nor a “classist,” I believe, to put it very simply, that correct and accurate use of language is important because essential for clear communication; that, conversely, sloppy use of language comes from sloppy thinkng and stresses communication. In other words, language being next to music our finest instrument for communicating with one another, we owe it to ourselves and one another to keep it well tuned.

I look forward very much to your future columns.

Wow!
Guest

@Allycat

I am getting my kids to learn other languages now that I have returned to Cornwall. Hiring a tutor to get them caught up so they can go to high school in French. There is very little emphasis on French in Oakville so they were immediately set behind after the move. It is too late for me. Keep writing.

concerned citizen 2
Guest
AllyCat said March 12, 2013 at 6:28 pm “@ Wow Regarding the high school crush, thank you. Regarding anglophones having a hard time finding jobs in Cornwall, I have a feeling you (and many others) may not like what I have to say on that point. Frankly I am embarrassed by how many anglo Canadians lament the need to learn French.” I don’t know you & you don’t know me, so please don’t judge me. I was born & raised Anglo,is that a crime or just bad luck???? Just because I can’t speak French at an A- level, as required… Read more »
edudyorlik
Guest

Knowing other languages IS INDEED a great thing. It enhances ones life in many ways. But, being forced to do so in order to gain meaningful employment in ones own English dominated country is tantamount to one side fighting a war without the use of weapons.

Reg Coffey
Member

Pejorative, tantamount, logarithmically, umlaut, sociolinguistics, ….isn’t the English language used properly simply wonderful.

I am really enjoying reading all of these posts almost as much as the column itself. Well written thoughts where you can debate the content rather than criticize the style.

AllyCat
Guest
@ edudyorlik and @concerned citizen 2 I have no doubt that it is frustrating and demoralizing to be very good at one’s job and find that he/she is at risk of losing that job because of being unable to meet an imposed second language requirement. The difference between my position and yours is this: I don’t view it as unreasonable. (Keep reading if you think I am not affected by this same language requirement.) I recognize that job requirements change because demographics and skill sets change. To qualify for a job, one has to possess all the skills deemed necessary.… Read more »
AllyCat
Guest
@ Richard Komorowski You asked: Why do we have to use foreign words instead of English ones. One example is using the Japanese tsunami instead of “tidal wave.” Another is referring to the Chinese capital city as “Beijing” instead of Peking, or the centre of the Indian film industry as Mumbai (sp?) rather than Bombay. After all, when we talk about a particular German city that was once a Roman colony, we say Cologne, rather than Koln (sorry, can’t figure out how to do an umlaut). Also, why has it become fashionable to say “myself” rather than the grammatically correct… Read more »
Bob K
Guest

Many big words and sentences make my brain hurt. With little edumacation and my primary skill being chicken frying and puck dropping I’m learning lots. Thanks in advance I will now be long time love you reader.

Keith B.
Guest
My dear Dear Dr. Allyson Historical realities can — AND DO — play a HUGE ROLE in shaping ones positive OR negative thoughts and feelings about, and or towards other cultures, whether they be English, French or whatever culture. The “condensed story” for me (and i would venture an educated well informed guess, also — for MANY other Anglophones in this country– ) goes as follows: Many years ago… when this country was much younger … The English majority, while seeking to be fair, generously and graciously accepted the idea of having the French language on ALL packaging in Canada,… Read more »
E. Marion
Guest

What ever happened to reading for enjoyment,information and to learn something new?
This article covered all the above & I was very impressed and will continue to enjoy & follow this column.
Oh, I forgot to say that “political correctness” bores me to tears!

AllyCat
Guest
Keith, I appreciate the education and historical perspective. Thank you for your reply. There is certainly truth to the observation (made by another commenter above) that not everyone learns languages easily. I have rose-coloured glasses, perhaps due to the great pleasure I take in learning a language, and also perhaps due to growing up with many Francophone friends and neighbours. I have personally witnessed how shared language repertoires unite people. I have a knee-jerk predisposition towards seeing English as a killer language that manages to snuff out most every indigenous language it comes into contact with. I lived in Hong… Read more »
concerned citizen 2
Guest
@ AllyCat A common language unites people & English is the common language of the world, whether you like it or not & truly we as humans should rejoice in that. I am surprised of your take on this issue, maybe you need to remove your “rose colored” glasses & see the reality of language discrimination living right in our community. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMBl7ZOVfBg&feature=g-upl&context=G2ab7300AUAAAAAAAAAA This is the reality of an Anglophone living in Cornwall,On, he is just one of many. St.Lawrence College graduates some of the BEST nurses in Canada & they can not work in the local hospital they trained in.… Read more »
concerned citizen 2
Guest

@ AllyCat

I forgot to mention, we all(Cornwallites) grew up with Franchophone friends/family. The issue of language discrimination has absolutely nothing to do with liking French or English, we ALL got/get along just fine.
As I said earlier the government is creating division with language laws/policies.
The attitude your displaying only adds fuel to the fire & encourages negative feelings towards both cultures.

AllyCat
Guest
@ Concerned Citizen 2 Thanks for the video link. I sympathize with the man in the video. You are entitled to your opinion of course, but I beg to differ with your accusation that I am adding fuel to the fire. I am stating what linguists around the globe know to be true: that many languages have been driven to extinction or near-extinction because of English-only policies: Cumbric, Cornish, Manx, Gaelic and sadly, too many North American indigenous languages to name. Our history of residential school policies bears witness to the latter. Rightly or wrongly, many Anglo-Canadians complain about being… Read more »
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