Friday May 4, 2007


If you listen to the BBC/PRI radio show "The World", you're familiar with the daily feature called the Geo Quiz (along with its maddeningly catchy theme song).  In it, the audience is teased with the description of some location in the world and asked to guess where it is.  Shortly thereafter, the location is revealed, and a story having something to do with that location follows.  In the show of April 2nd, the answer to the Geo Quiz was Lake Baikal in Siberia.  The story was about a team who trekked across the lake when it was frozen in winter, a 435-mile journey from south to north that they'd originally intended to travel by kite-skiing.  Unfortunately, the winds didn't cooperate and they had to walk the whole way, dragging their sledges.  (Talk about buns of steel!)

At one point in the story, team member Conrad Dickinson made a claim that should sound familiar to readers of linguistics blogs:

Lake Baikal is famous for its winds.  A bit like the Inuit in northern Canada have 18 names for snow, the local people have 30 names for the famous winds.

Aha!  It's another variation on the original snowclone!

Whether or not Dickerson's claim about the number of Inuit words for snow is true (hint: it's false), I think it's interesting to consider what Dickerson might have meant by referring to the urban legend about Eskimo words for snow.  There are two obvious interpretations of the legend.  It might be intended to mean, "Eskimos deal with lots of snow, and so they have lots of words for it", which is a pretty unsurprising claim—jargons exist, uncontroversially.  It might, instead, be intended as a stronger claim: that Eskimos have many words for snow, and this causes them to perceive the world differently than speakers of snow-term-impoverished languages (a "vulgar" version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis).  So which did Dickerson intend?

It helps to know more about the names for the winds of Lake Baikal.  Dickerson wasn't just using a rhetorical trope to suggest that there are strong winds on the lake; there really are a large number of terms. This web site has a very thorough description (including a map) of the winds that occur on the lake in various weather conditions and at various times of year.  The site even agrees with Dickerson's claims about the number of terms, 30, citing Oleg Gusev's work A Naturalist at Baikal, about which I can find no other information on the web—that page is the only Google hit for that phrase.  (Can any Russian speakers help out?)

So, what are these words for wind?  The page linked above lists 11 winds, some of which have more than one name, and of which the vast majority seem to be named after the geographical feature that describes the source of the wind—that is, the Kultuk blows from Kultuk Bay, the Barguzine blows out of the Barguzine valley, and the Selenga wind blows from the river Selenga.  Notice in particular that the names for the winds of Lake Baikal really are proper names of winds.  They're not primarily distinguished by quality—that is, there aren't separate words for a hot wind, a cold wind, a steady wind, etc.—but rather by direction and geography.

Since such proper names don't support the idea that people living around Lake Baikal somehow perceive wind differently, it seems clear to me that Dickerson didn't intend to make the vulgar Whorfian claim.  In fact, although he probably intended to make the weaker "jargon" claim, I think the facts don't support even that.  To see what I mean, imagine he was talking about Minnesota rather than Siberia.  Dickerson's claim strikes me as less like the statement "Minnesotans have ten words for snow" (because they have to deal with it all the time) and much more like the statement "Minnesotans have ten thousand words for lake" (because they have ten thousand lakes).  It's simply a fact of geography that Lake Baikal has strong (and therefore salient) winds, and they locals have mostly named them after their sources, which must be a common practice worldwide.  There's nothing really surprising going on that calls for linguistic explanation—something that Dickerson's statement hints at, since he says "names for snow" and "names for the famous winds" rather than "terms" or "words".

This isn't to take anything away from the team's journey across Lake Baikal.  They weren't there to satisfy anyone's linguistic claims or theories, after all, but to experience the lake during the winter.  It sounds like they got much, much more Baikal than they bargained for.  It's travel stories like this that make me want to stay home and enjoy my nice, warm couch.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Another excellent post.

And agreed about the 'Geo-Quiz' theme song!

Posted by: Bryan at May 4, 2007 10:21:23 AM

"Minnesotans have ten for snow" - This sentence appears to be missing a

Posted by: Owlmirror at May 7, 2007 4:26:03 PM

The question is, I suppose: if a local leaves the Lake Baikal area and vacations in, say, White Bear Lake, MN, what will he call the winds that blow there? Will a wind with the characteristics of the winds from Kutluk Bay be called a Kutluk? (If so, what characteristics? Heat, humidity, direction?) Or will he be at a loss for words until someone points and says, "The city of Minnetonka is that way", to which he will respond, "Ah! It's a Minnetonka that's blowing. Thank you."

If anyone wants to get a grant to pay for the American vacations of various, er, Baikalalaikans, I'd be interested to see the results.

Posted by: Lance at May 11, 2007 1:14:30 PM

This reminds me of the definition of "High Street" that used to be on Wikipedia until I made a minor correction by deleting the following sentence:

In French the literal translation, ''Grande Rue'', is used.

Apart from that "Grande Rue" does of course not show literal semantic resemblance to any of the English versions, even if it did, i.e. if the French or by me Québecois named that kind of street "Rue Haute", it still wouldn't have to be a "translation".

It struck me that as soon as someone created a word or expression in some other language for a certain phenomenon that was believed to work the same as in the language of the author of the original entry, they assumed it would be a "translation". ("Where there's smoke there's got to be a fire.")

Almost tempting to see that particular case as one of Anglo-Saxon arrogance à la "It's surely more likely they copied it from our great culture than having had an equal reasonable idea for naming it themselves". Well we don't want to interpret it like that, but I see some resemblance to the Whorfian snowclones as far as misinterpretation of the inner idea behind words is concerned, and in that even if the so-many-words-for-snow thing were true, it shouldn't be carelessly transferred to a so-many-words-for-wind thing.

Posted by: Edwing at Jun 4, 2007 2:25:27 PM

A bit like the Inuit in northern Canada have 18 names for snow, linguists have 30 names for snowclones.

Posted by: Dai at Jun 5, 2007 3:43:15 PM