Date of Original Version

1-1-2016

Type

Article

PubMed ID

27073981

Rights Management

© 2016 Regier et al.

Abstract or Description

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.

DOI

10.1371/journal. pone.0151138

Creative Commons

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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Psychology Commons

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Published In

PLoS One, 11, 4, 0151138-0151138.