Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Loveless Inuit

In their article Voiceless Requiem (Times of India, June 10 2003), Jug Suraiya and Vikas Singh write about language, its importance to humanity and the sad decline and eventual disappearance of hundred’s of languages. They then go overboard and claim that language is so embedded in the human experience that it creates the reality that we see around us. They subscribe to the extreme form of linguistic determinism. This version claims that for example cultures that lack words for certain colors cannot perceive those colors. Or that Hopi Indians don't think of time as past , present and future a conclusion based on the apparent lack of words to describe time. Both these and many of such extremes claims have been shown to be patently false. But Suraiya and Singh seem to have overlooked the literature of false claims. They begin by falling hook line and sinker for the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax which is that Inuit have tens of different words for snow. Urban legend had earlier inflated the number of Inuit words for snow to 200 plus. Current Inuit language dictionaries and linguists have brought it down to a more modest 2! The number 11 quoted in the article is a generous count for snow and snow related phenomenon, not much different than English expressions for the same.

Not satisfied with burdening the Inuit with a vast vocabulary for snow, Suraiya and Singh then claim that the Inuit language does not have words for romantic love. Apparently living in strongly bonded communities precludes the need for Inuit’s developing special attachments to other single members of the tribe. This is an absurd idea, but I followed it up and emailed a linguist expert on Inuit languages. After he had stopped laughing he emailed me a list of words for romantic love in Inuit dialects. Here are some examples, “piqpagigikpi¤” in Inupiaq Eskimo, North Slope dialect, kenkamken in Yup'ik Eskimo of Southwest Alaska, asavakkit in West Greenlandic all of which mean “I love you”!

Humans all over express an identical range of personal emotions and needs regardless of whether they live relatively solitary lives or part of strong communities. Even if the Inuit didn’t have a word for romantic love, one cannot automatically conclude that they don’t form special attachments. This myth i.e., since people speak differently, they must also be thinking differently, has been discredited by linguists and cognitive psychologists. Apart from formal research, one just has to glance at Inuit language novels or movies depicting lust, love, greed, jealousy and revenge to realize that the Inuit develop over their lifetime a range of intense personal relationships with other single tribal members, no different than humans living elsewhere. And yes, they have words to express all of them in their rich language.

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