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How Many Words Do Eskimos Really Have for Snow?

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There are three answers to this question: a heck of a lot, not that many, and a whole heck of a lot. Or, if you want specifics: 5, 2, and 99. Confused? The question has been problematic, and the best way to understand what the answers mean is to take a look at the history of people talking about Eskimo words for snow.

Preliminaries

There is no single "Eskimo" language. "Eskimo" is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik peoples living in the polar regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. They speak a variety of languages, the larger ones being Central Alaskan Yup'ik, West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Inuktitut. There are multiple dialects of each. Some have more words for snow than others.

 A heck of a lot

Today, you see the "Eskimos have so many words for snow" trope everywhere from ads to cartoons to articles about hairstyles. As Laura Martin noted in her 1986 article "Eskimo Words for Snow," anthropologists and psychologists started using the story in the late 1950's as a go-to illustration in discussions of the relationship between language, culture, and perception. If Eskimos carved up the world of snow into four or five categories where we had one, was their perception of snow different from ours? From there the idea spread into the popular culture, and it has been going strong ever since. Where the original sources mentioned four or five specific snow words, in the hands of the general public that number turned into 25, 50, 100, 400 – it didn't really matter. The story did not exist to give information about Eskimo languages, but to say, "hey, other people sure do look at the world differently!"

And this was problematic. The idea of using language to show that other people look at the world differently had a nasty history. Early ethnographers used linguistic evidence to impugn the character or cognitive abilities other peoples. An 1827 book mentions that in the language of Lapland "there are five words for snow, seven or eight for a mountain, but honesty, virtue and conscience must be expressed by a periphrasis." The academics who picked up the snow words tale in the 1950s didn't take such a simplistic view of the relationship between language and culture. But to say that having a lot words for something means you find it important or perceive it more readily, gives some people the wrong idea that that not having a lot of words for something means you can't perceive it and don't find it important.

Not that many

Part of the debunking of that false implication came in the form of a debunking of the snow words trope. Martin's paper and Geoffrey Pullum's well-known essay "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," pointed out that the linguistic facts did not support the idea that Eskimos had some wildly exotic giant snow vocabulary.

The Inuit and Yupik languages are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages combine a limited set of roots and word endings to create an unlimited set of words. For instance from oqaq – the West Greenlandic root for "tongue" – you get oqaaseq (word), oqaasipiluuppaa (harangues him), oqaluppoq (speaks), oqaatiginerluppaa (speaks badly about him) and Oqaasileriffik (Greenlandic language secretariat). These can then be expanded with all sorts of other endings, so that a sentence like, "I hadn't planned to cause you to harangue him after all" would be expressed with one word. If these word-sentences count as words, then Eskimos don't just have thousands of words for snow, but for everything.

Martin suggests that we instead ask how many roots Eskimos have for snow. In the case of West Greenlandic, the answer is two: qanik (snow in the air), and aput (snow on the ground). From these we can get derived words like qanipalaat (feathery clumps of falling snow) and apusiniq (snowdrift). There are also terms for snow that use different roots (for "covering," "floating" or other things snow does), but Pullum's essay notes a problem with the notion of counting words with other roots as "snow words": Do we count an Inuit word that can mean "snow for igloo making" as a snow word if it also just means building materials in general? To use another example, is "pack" a snow word in English, or a just a general term for tightly smushing things? In any case, there may be just as many snow words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, avalanche, etc.) as in "Eskimo" languages.

A whole heck of a lot

The linguist K. David Harrison has traveled all over the world studying endangered languages. In his book The Last Speakers, he says it's a mistake to think that just because people made uninformed and exaggerated claims about Eskimo snow words in the past, the real number must be ordinary and uninteresting.

From what he has seen, "the number of snow/ice/wind/weather terms in some Arctic languages is impressively vast, rich, and complex." The Yupik, for example, "identify and name at least 99 distinct sea ice formations." For example, there is a word Nuyileq, meaning "crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear."

Clearly, there is a lot more included in this definition than would be included in a typical dictionary definition. But it shows how a set of terminology can reflect a complicated body of specific expertise. Every area of expertise has such a set. Geologists have lots of words for rocks, linguists have lots of words for speech sounds. This means Eskimos may not be any more exotic than geologists or linguists, but it does not mean their words for snow are uninteresting. You can learn a lot about what distinctions are important to make in a field by looking at the distinctions between words. The Yupik ice words, whatever the number, are important because they package information in a useful way. We ignore the significance of that packaging, as Harrison says, "at our peril."

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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