November 2006

Talking about words: How Many Words?

By Richard W. Bailey


How many words is enough?

Most people believe that there are a lot of words for things in the world that we talk about a lot. The usual example is that the Eskimo language (Inupiak) has lots of words for snow because there's lots of snow in the high Arctic. Enthusiastic supporters of this myth suggest that there may even be hundreds of words for snow, and quite smart academics are responsible for publicizing this bogus claim. The person who has denounced this idea to a wide audience calls it "scholarly irresponsibly."  (See Geoffrey K. Pullum, "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" [University of Chicago Press, 1991].)

In fact, the Eskimos have no more words for snow than English speakers do.

And anyone can verify that claim just by looking at the Inupiaq dictionary. But of course nobody bothers to look since we all know that there are lots of words for snow in Eskimo.

So it remains a question why people have lots of words for some things and not so many for others.

Words describing the color of skin abound in English, particularly since the rise of race theory in the eighteenth century. Black to describe African-Americans comes and goes as an acceptable descriptor. (It's first written down in 1625.) Pinko-grey has some currency for Caucasians; it was introduced into English, as far as the record shows, by E. M. Forester in his anti-imperialist novel, "Passage to India" (1924). Flesh, the ghastly pink crayon color, lasted from 1949 to 1962 and was renamed peach. There are a startling variety of words to describe skin tones, and they vary greatly in offensiveness:  bronze, brunette, café au lait, colored, dark, dusky, ebony, fair, florid, frowzy , gingery, lily, nut-brown, olive, pale-faced, peachy, red,  rosy, rubicund, ruddy, sable, sallow, swart, swarthy, tansy-faced, yellow.

Does this long list suggest that English-speakers are obsessive about complexion?

In 2003, a trademark case dealt with the question of whether or not redskin (as used by the professional football team in the capital) was a racist insult or something else. The judge left the question open as she dismissed the case on procedural issues. Was redskin a slur when it was first used in English?  Did it become a slur later?

Redskin was first used in English in a translation of a speech by the Santee Chief French Crow on meeting James Madison in 1815 in the White House:  "I am a Redskin."  (Or at least that's how James Cameron, the translator, rendered it.)  In 1821, Chief Topinabee of the Pottawatomie (for whom a Michigan town is named) used an expression so translated at a conference in Chicago. Examples from these speeches have been gathered by a prominent scholar of Algonquin languages and posted, along with his interpretative essay, on his Web page.

James Fenimore Cooper (in "The Pioneers") used it in the dying words of Chingachgook:  "There will soon be no more red-skin in the country." Just when redskin got to be insulting remains to be litigated.

In July 2006, the appellate court agreed to hear the redskin case. The linguists who line up on either side of the question will be back on the payroll.

There don't seem to be a lot of nuanced distinctions for the varying hues of Native Americans, but that's not the case with African-Americanisms.

High yellow is defined by one dictionary as "a black person having light-brown skin—usually considered offensive." Other dictionaries do not include the warning. First noticed in the writing of a white novelist in 1923, high yellow must certainly have had some earlier currency among African-Americans. Claude McKay used it in a novel of 1932.

High yellow turns up in 1930s songs by Bessie Smith and Blind Willie McTell.

Blind Willie, in his song, considers the competing claims of three beautiful women:  Atlanta yellow, Macon brown, and Statesboro black. Nothing offensive in those descriptions. And everyone sings "The Yellow Rose of Texas," a song celebrating a particularly desirable African-American woman.

An African-American student of mine helpfully provided this list of words that came to her "right off the top of my head":  light-skin, dark-skin, dark chocolate, chocolate, brown, dark brown, tropical caramel, golden, yellow, redbone, paper-sack brown, darkie, mocha blue black, light bright. (Thanks, Joi-Lyn.)

In the English vocabulary are we snow ignorant and race obsessed?

Probably not.

So the vexing question remains:  Why do languages have a lot of words for some things and not for others?


Richard W. Bailey is Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor of English at the University of Michigan. His latest publication (co-edited with Colette Moore and Marilyn Miller) is an edition of a chronicle of daily life in London written by a merchant in the middle of the sixteenth century. This electronic book incorporates images of the manuscript, a transcript of the writing it contains, and a modernization of the text for easy reading. Thanks to the University of Michigan Library and the University Press, the work is freely available to all:

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