Words Run Amok

06 March 2019

[Note: This is the first in a bit of branching out for this blog into something I had always intended to do with it; namely, interspersing various musings from my passion for linguistics. As you’ll see, this interest often intersects in various ways with my other more esoteric interests.]

Language/Culture X has Y words for Z

Did you know the Eskimos “have 50 different words for snow”? You’ve no doubt heard it in any case (with the number, in a real life game of “telephone” gone wild, slowly increasing over time). I’ve never been clear on why this seems to be most well-known the example of vocabulary supposedly run amok. Of course, it’s entirely incorrect on at least two levels.

To begin with, Eskimo is not only an inaccurate term but is now considered to be a bit on the pejorative side. Nor is it the case that generally more accurate terms, like Inuit and Yupik, should be substituted in an over-simplified search-and- replace; these are just the two best known groups of people who have inhabited the far north long enough to be considered native to the region. But this is not the main point I’m getting to.

If your culture places a particular value on highly nuanced variations of a common thing, your language will reflect this. Setting aside the tendency of Inuit and related languages to construct compound words whose length would bewilder even a German speaker, the resulting compounds can still generally be treated as variations on the root word (each component is itself a word or prefix of some kind, and understanding of the meaning of the whole can be gained from breaking it into and analyzing these components).

We do the same type of compounding in English, but it’s just that the way our language combines different words and particles to create more complex words leaves them separate (thus forming phrases instead of new standalone words). Thus we can have fluffy snow, slushy snow, snow flurries, etc. as different “names” for snow even though we parse them as just the noun snow with clarifying adjectives. If English created compound words through lengthening, we could just as easily (given different turns of the quirks of language evolution), ended up with fluffsnow, slushysnow, flursnow, frozenskystuff, etc.

Now imagine a non-English speaker from a tropical island encountering this strange weather phenomenon that they are barely familiar with, and who doesn’t know that snow can come in different ‘kinds’ like our manipulated examples – they’d likely just claim that English has (at least) four words for snow.

[As an aside, I also think there is a subtle racial component to the “Eskimos have 50 words for snow” canard. Similarly to how much of ‘ancient aliens’ speculation amounts to an implication of “these ‘primitive’ brown-skinned people couldn’t possibly have figured this out on their own!”, the snow vocabulary issue carries an implication of “don’t these silly people know they could just reuse a word and add adjectives like we do in ‘sensible’ English?”]

English (especially American English) has more words than I can count for car (or more generally, four-wheeled street vehicle). We have sedans, coupés, SUVs, RVs, convertibles, hatchbacks, sportscars, trucks, buses, compacts, limousines, clunkers, beetles, minivans, Fords, Porsches, etc. etc. etc. If you speak a language other than English, and have a frame of reference that either doesn’t distinguish between or have an awareness of these varieties, you’d likely just translate them all as the lowest common denominator of ‘car’, ‘vehicle’, etc. After all, they each are types of passenger vehicles and if your primary motivation is just to get from point A to point B without having to walk, that description is sufficient enough. Languages use different names for distinctions their host cultures find meaningful, even when there is still a general category that captures the meaning sufficiently for many purposes; those distinctions are easily lost when a culture that doesn’t place the same emphasis or awareness on those categories translates them into their own language.

[You could do the same example with computers (Apple, PC, tablet, mainframe, etc.), phones (mobile, landline, flip phone, iPhone, phablet, etc.), trees (oak, ash, birch, elm, yew, pine, cedar, etc.) or with virtually any common object where sometimes you need to make a specific enough distinction between its varieties that a different word, compound or not, is appropriate].

Translation Loss in Contextualizing Iceland Magic

This same translation problem, where essential meaning is lost if the translation simplifies into a ‘lowest common denominator’ word, pops up in two specific places in the study (and revitalization) of pre-Christian religion. My examples will draw primarily from northern Germanic studies, as that’s where my familiarity lies.

In Old Icelandic, there are many different terms that are often homogenized in translation to words like ‘magic’ and ‘witchcraft’. Non-magic using cultures tend to collapse all such terms into more broad and simplified ones, in part because they don’t grok all the distinctions and so the terms are really just synonyms for each other (rather than retaining the importance they originally had that necessitated breaking the concepts into different words).

One operation is not the equivalent of another, and thus essential meaning is lost when replacing all words in the same category with a more generic gloss. Some Old Icelandic terms that are usually translated as merely ‘magic’ or ‘witchcraft’ include:

  • galdur - from the verb gala (the ‘singing’ of ravens, an animal closely connected with Óðinn). This is vocal/verbal magic, often involving runes. This is the most common specific type of magical practice mentioned in the Eddas and the sagas.

  • seidh - a form of ecstatic trance magic; a full discussion of its practice and etymology is beyond scope of this post

  • gandur - use of magical wand/staff (Tolkien borrowed from the Eddic poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) the dwarf name Gandalf (“wand elf”) for his famous wizard)

  • fjölkynngi - means something like ‘deeply skilled magic’. There’s not much information available on the particulars of this form in existing sources of the period.

  • fornekja - The first part, forn, means “old” (e.g., as in Forni, “the old man/one”, a byname of Óðinn). This is magic rooted in knowledge of the deep past (you must dig deeply into the roots of things in order to be fully transformed by them). The term is often translated into the generic (and thus mostly meaningless) gloss of ‘witchcraft’.

Ignoring Nuance in Concepts of the Soul

The concept of the soul is greatly oversimplified in the Judeo-Christian-derived version we typically associate with it today.

The soulcraft of the Germanic peoples reveals far greater nuance, and a much better map for working with the concept. The Old Icelandic ideas and descriptions here are adapted from Edred Thorsson’s The Nine Doors of Midgard, but are well documented especially in the Icelandic forms used here. (See also his master’s thesis, published as Sigurdr: The Rites of Transformation, under his given name of Dr. Stephen E. Flowers).

There are at least eight parts of the body/soul complex in the old Icelandic phenomenology. These include:

  • hamr - the force that gives shape to objects, mutated by the individual human will

  • önd - the animating principle of the entire complex (“breath”)

  • hugr and minni - the cognitive and reflective faculties (from the same roots as Óðinn’s ravens Huginn and Muninn)

  • fylgja - the faculty for storing/transmitting individuality in a mysterious pattern throughout one’s life (and beyond). Often visualized as a contra-sexual being, or an animal form

  • hamingja - usually translated as a person’s innate ‘luck’, or the power to cause changes within the world

(Another meaningful breakdown, usually collapsed to the oversimplified concept of ‘soul’, is that of the ancient Egyptians: khat (body emanation), ren (name emanation), khabit (shadow emanation), ab (heart emanation), ba (core emanation), ka (transmigration emanation), sekhem (neter emanation), akh (star emanation). See Dr. Michael Aquino’s Mindstar for a fuller explanation).

Languages are nearly infinitely flexible things. The way that vocabulary arises, especially for commonly used or encountered objects, is driven both by the rules of the language for creating new words that ‘fit’ within its phonology, and also by the distinctions that are considered meaningful. We shouldn’t be any more surprised by the ways different languages collapse and combine elements to form new concepts than we should continue to be by the fascinating multiplicity of language itself.