October 21, 2003

Bleached conditionals

There is a special kind of conditional that does not appear to have conditional force at all; it is more like a coordination. Here is a nice one from The Economist last week:

If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy.

[The Economist, October 11th, 2003, p. 56, col. 2]

It is surely being presupposed here that EVERYONE knows Eskimos have dozens of words for snow. The alleged bureaucratic ubiquity of the Teutonic world is not really being treated as conditional on the truth of a contingent claim about those hardy Boreal nomads of the Arctic. The if scarcely means "if"; the sentence is essentially equivalent to this:

Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, as everyone knows. Well, Germans have just as many for bureaucracy.

I know, I know, those of you acquainted with my oeuvre are probably expecting me to rave on for a while about the continuing spread of the ridiculous journalistic conceit of drawing rhetorical conclusions from the frozen factoid that for some fascinatingly large number N, the Eskimos have N words for snow. It has been going on for fifty years, at increasing pace. Laura Martin has been inveighing against it since 1982, when she spoke to the American Anthropological Association about it as a kind of academic urban legend that anthropological linguists had been spreading. In 1986 (after four years of arm-wrestling with embarrassed anthropologist referees who would really have been happier if this did not come out) she finally published a short note on the topic in American Anthropologist.

Later I wrote a deliberately humorous article myself called "The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax", attempting to publicize Laura's work among linguists. My article has been published in five or six different places, including as the title essay of my 1991 book, which was written up in Newsweek and various other places, and has been drawn to the attention of journalists and editors. But it's clear to me that Laura and I are just wasting our time. People have written letters to The New York Times over and over again about this, quoting from their previous letters, and it makes no difference: the Times has repeated the Eskimo claim several times. Jane Brody alone has used it at least twice, citing a different number of snow words each time, and has ignored letters about the topic.

The truth about snow words in the Eskimo languages simply doesn't matter. If it did, I would carefully explain that there seem to be only a handful of roots that really are snow roots in the languages of the Yup'iks and Inuits, maybe four or five, not very different from the number found in English (snow, sleet, slush, blizzard). But it doesn't matter. All that matters to journalists is that they continue to have the snowbound simile in question at their disposal for constant use whenever a line or two needs to be filled up with linguistic babble.

But this is what makes the point I made about the conditional example above so clear. You are supposed to know that there are dozens of words for snow in a language called "Eskimo". (Sure, there is no such language, and you have never seen any data, but never mind, you are just supposed to know that it's true.) It's meant to be publicly known, in the common ground. That is what makes it so clear that the conditional sentence I cited is in fact bleached of its conditionality. The if P, instead of meaning "give [me the assumption that] P" (the etymological origin), it means "given that P".

If you look around you will find many other such examples. In fact [added October 23, 2003, 9pm] Mark Liberman has pointed out to me that there is a semi-fixed journalistic form of words developing here: bleached conditionals beginning "If Eskimos have [YOUR CHOICE OF POSITIVE INTEGER HERE] words for snow..." are becoming ridiculously common. I have made available Mark's small corpus of these examples for your reading pleasure, ordered in ascending number of alleged words for snow. It is really rather frightening. Perhaps they are teaching this as a useful trope in journalism schools now.

Bleached conditionals probably tell us something about the semantics or the pragmatics of conditionals, though I have never been able to put my finger on exactly what.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 21, 2003 07:41 PM