Have you heard that Eskimos have about a hundred different words for snow? You did? Well, it was a rhetorical question really. I knew you heard about it. If you live in an English speaking country, you probably heard this “fact” repeated to you about few hundred times by now. But it is not a fact. It is a meme. One that spreads far and wide because we all find it somewhat interesting. It is a cool linguistic factoid which, is unfortunately entirely made up.
Firstly, there is no single Eskimo language. The who we usually lump together as Eskimos actually belong to bunch of different ethnic groups and they speak a number of different languages and dialects. We refer to these as the Eskimo Aleut family of languages. Secondly, none of these languages has an unusual number of words for snow. They have about as many snow-related words as English.
You should have known that too, because this is where the term snowclone was derived from. But in case you didn’t (shame on you) then I hope I ruined a perfectly neat factoid for you. As a form of apology, I will supply you with a real, albeit slightly less impressive one.
Here it goes: Polish people have two distinct and equivalent names for potatoes: ziemniak and kartofel. Yes, these words do not even look alike, but they mean the exact same thing. They are not names for different types of potatoes, or different states of a potato (as in whole, baked, mashed, etc). They are completely interchangeable and have no difference in meaning.
These are not regional names either. This is not a soda and pop situation. Actually, let me explain this for non American readers: depending on which part of US you grew up in, you will refer to carbonated beverages either as soda or as pop. For example, I live in NJ and here you say soda. When someone asks you for pop you send them to the internet to download some mp3’s. In the past you sent them to a local record store, but we no longer have any of these, don’t we?
Anyways, the ziemiak/kartofel thing is nothing like the soda/pop situation. Both words are widely used across the entire nation. In fact, most people don’t even have a personal preference. I for example pick my potato word based on some neural switch magic somewhere deep inside my brain. Sometimes one comes out rather than the other, and I couldn’t tell you why.
Both words have slightly different etymology. The root word of Ziemniak is ziemia, which means ground. So the name literally means a thing in the ground, which makes sense. Kartofel on the other hand is borrowed from the German word for potato which is Kartoffel. As you can see we optimized the word for efficiency by dropping a redundant F but other than that, we kept it almost identical. Some people say that using ziemniak is more patriotic because it does not contain a foreign root, but most don’t care either way.
So yeah, we have two words for potato. Actually we have more than that. There is about a dozen names for this vegetable but they are mostly regional dialects: people from Poznań call it pyra, górale from eastern Podhale call it grula, their neighbors from western Podhale say rzepa and those who speak the Kaszubski dialect usually say bulwa. But ziemiak and kartofel are universal, interchangeable and used everywhere.
So there, this is your linguistic factoid of the day. And if this is not enough for ruining your eskimo snowclone story, let me throw in another one for a good measure:
Most modern languages use similar words to denote bicycle. It is bicicletta in Italian, bicicleta in Spanish, bicyclette in French, bicicleta in Austrian, bicikl in Croatian, bicicletã in Romanian, bicykel in Slovak, cykel in Swedish, bisiklet in Turkish, cykel in Dannish, and etc… Even in Esperanto, it is biciklo.
How do you say bicycle in Polish?
No, seriously. If you say bicykl which would be the correct polonized version of the same root word that everyone else uses, most Poles will imagine the old timey, retro bike. You know, the one with a huge wheel in front and tiny little one in the back. If you want to talk about actual modern bicycles however, you need to use the word rower.
How the hell did we get rower out of bicycle? Well, we didn’t. It is one of these cases where people start using a brand name instead of the generic term, and it sort of stays that way. For example: “can you pick up some kleenex?” (instead of tissues) or “can you xerox this for me” (instead of copy). This exact process took place when British company Rover started selling their bikes in Poland. Rover has not produced any bicycles in many decades, but their brand were apparently so iconic that the company name became a generic term for a bicycle. We just swapped V for a W because V is one of those “borrowed” letters that was never actually part of Polish alphabet and which only shows up in foreign words, or words that are made to sound foreign.
Anyways, this was your linguistic lesson of the day. And with this, my blog is officially completely off the rails. I just blogged about potatoes, bicycles and Eskimo words for snow. Wow… I don’t really have an official topic here, but this post is widely diverging from my usual topic range. I hope you guys don’t mind. I’m filing this under “random stuff” because that’s what it is.