OPEN PloS one | 14 Apr 2016
T Regier, A Carstensen and C Kemp
The claim that Eskimo languages have words for different types of snow is well-known among the public, but has been greatly exaggerated through popularization and is therefore viewed with skepticism by many scholars of language. Despite the prominence of this claim, to our knowledge the line of reasoning behind it has not been tested broadly across languages. Here, we note that this reasoning is a special case of the more general view that language is shaped by the need for efficient communication, and we empirically test a variant of it against multiple sources of data, including library reference works, Twitter, and large digital collections of linguistic and meteorological data. Consistent with the hypothesis of efficient communication, we find that languages that use the same linguistic form for snow and ice tend to be spoken in warmer climates, and that this association appears to be mediated by lower communicative need to talk about snow and ice. Our results confirm that variation in semantic categories across languages may be traceable in part to local communicative needs. They suggest moreover that despite its awkward history, the topic of “words for snow” may play a useful role as an accessible instance of the principle that language supports efficient communication.
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