Aaron Bady: White Words (Popula)
No one should be surprised that the eccentricities of “the English” never became a thing, of course. We do not tend to confuse “The English” with “speakers of English” for the same reason that there is no common-sense idiom about how their many words for water are derived from centuries as a seagoing empire based on a rainy island. They do not become a they because they are us.
One interesting thing is how boring the answer to the underlying question is. On the one hand, people who live in the Arctic—and whose languages developed in that environment—will naturally have more sophisticated and nuanced and complex language for describing their environment, exactly as you’d expect them to. No one really denies that they tend to, even if this fact isn’t easily grasped by counting words. But exoticizing Eskimos is also a function of ignorance, conjecture, and projection. “Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow” is an amazing phrase, because every word in it is wrong. But reversing it—announcing proudly that they don’t—only replicates that wrongness; you can’t say no to a bad question and be right.
What’s fascinating to me about actually reading Whorf’s work—after working my way debunkers who gesture at his ignorance as disqualifying—is how simple the point he was trying to make actually was: that ignorance is, itself, a pathway towards new knowledge. Precisely because other languages show us things we didn’t know—and didn’t know we didn’t know—we can learn new things by engaging with that ignorance. What, for example, might an Inuktitut know about a world that distinguishes between aput, qana, piqsirpoq, or qimuqsuq that an America won’t know about “snow”? To translate “aput” into “snow on the ground” doesn’t solve the problem, it only buries it under the illusion of comprehension; better to ask, he says, what it is that isn’t being translated.