Friday, September 29, 2006

The Origin of Snowclones

[click the post title to read about "snowclone"]

Language Log has been contributing a prudent voice to the discussion of the study of the differences between the behaviour of the sexes. Much of the discussion focuses on biological reasons for the schism between male and female behaviour. One of the most heralded "findings" is the discrepancy between the number of words spoken each day by men and women. I remember hearing this first when I was in high school. It was my senior year and we were watching a video by a marriage counselor named Gary Smalley. So that puts 1990/91 as the earliest I heard it. And I believed it.

Apparently Smalley and James Dobson are some of the earlier pundits positing this belief that men use fewer words per day. You might remember Gary Smalley as the marriage guru whose half hour commercial pushed his series of books tapes and lectures that would save any marriage. He chose Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford to vouch for the quality of the tapes. They said they were in love. And I believed it.

So speaking of myths -- the statistical ratio of men's to women's words per day has little foundation. No research has been cited that sufficiently supports it. And what research there is leans towards men being the more verbose sex. Mr Liberman has done a nice job investigating this. Read some of the posts here. You'll learn something for sure.

Still speaking of myths -- there is another long running claim about the number of Eskimo words for snow. This claim is used to show how experience shapes language. Certainly any people that deals with snow so much must have a very specialised lexicon. It sounds like a simple matter of jargon to me. Geoff Pullum thought it deserved a place in his book's title. Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language mentions Pullum's book and adds

Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen, but by such standards English would not be far behind, with snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, dusting, and a coinage of Boston's WBZ-TV meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler, snizzling.

Here's a nice nexus of links related to the topic -- also from Language Log. I especially like those voices that remind us to consider the morphology of a language when thinking about the richness of vocabulary. Here's Pullum on the topic of derivational suffixes.

If you wanted to say "They were wandering around gathering up lots of stuff that looked like snowflakes" (or fish, or coffee), you could do that with one word, very roughly as follows. You would take the "snowflake" root qani- (or the "fish" root or whatever); add a visual similarity postbase to get a stem meaning "looking like ____"; add a quantity postbase to get a stem meaning "stuff looking like ____"; add an augmentative postbase to get a stem meaning "lots of stuff looking like ____"; add another postbase to get a stem meaning "gathering lots of stuff looking like ____"; add yet another postbase to get a stem meaning "peripatetically gathering up lots of stuff looking like ____"; and then inflect the whole thing as a verb in the 3rd-person plural subject 3rd-person singular object past tense form; and you're done. Astounding. One word to express a whole sentence. But even if you choose qani- as your root, what you get could hardly be called a word for snow. It's a verb with an understood subject pronoun.

Consider the (often colloquial) English method of hyphenating to create an absolutely constituent phrase. A fish that looks like a boot might be called a boot-fish. A boot that looks like a fish might be called a fish-boot. Imagine the observer who speaks no English and finds these in a corpus of our language. That linguist might note the three instances of the "fish" root (the two compounds plus the lone root) and use this type of production to add the three words in English to all the names of fish species and the combinations of fish words that we know (fisher fishing fishery fisherman fishfood fishwich fish-sticks blowfish dogfish catfish fishhook fishwife fishbowl fishy fishtail...) -- and so we start looking like an ichthyocracy.


  1. England is an island. I was hoping for fishmonger, but I suppose it is fish monger. Can a man be a fishwife, or would there be a cultural necessity to call him a male fishwife, e.g. male nurse? Thanks for some new stuff.

  2. So if you were watching Gary Smalley in your high school was it a Christian High School?

    Whether there is evidence or not I think I will always believe the myth that men speak fewer words per day than women! Most men I have met don't say much - at least not vocally. I'm not saying that it's a fact, just what I've observed...talking is much more important to women...I think we'd die if we didn't say a certain amount of words each day!

  3. Oh, my marvelous marido,

    And the "ichthyocracy" was such a delicious delight. Good job.

  4. It was a parochial school. It was part of a marriage project.

    I find that Buffy rarely wants to use more words in a day than I do. I don't dare use this statistic as proof of anything since I am constantly repeating data quietly to myself, listening to my pronuciation and prosody.

    Actually Daniel it would be one word. And if sports teams are any model we could call a scolding male a "gentleman fishwife" -- just like a "lady knight" -- I'll never get my head around that one.

  5. Charissa also repeats words to herself to compare pronunciation--especially when we were in Korea. That alone might double her word count. I make a lot of sound effects; do they increase my count? One word I've never repeated to myself is ichthyocracy.

  6. One nickname pairing I appreciate is Yankton High School (SD). They are the Bucks and Gazelles respectively. This was a much better route than the Bucks and Buckettes.

  7. Yes. That one makes sense. I like it. What if DAA had instead named their warrior players Knights and Amazons?

    And why did they choose Knights in the first place? This whole army of Christianity thing is really starting to bother me.

    Jeff: I remember hearing something about the sounds that little boys and girls make when playing. Whoever was talking mentioned that little girls make only noises that have to do with communication. Not necessarily all words -- but communication. Little boys make noises that might have nothing to do with communicating.

    I say that's a judgment call. What would the make of the difference between a little girl who says "the bomb went boom" and a little boy who simply says "boom"? Aren't they both communicating? And how do we draw this imaginary line between communicating and representing?


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