March 04, 2004

The Eskimos, Arabs, Somalis, Carrier .. and English

The Eskimos may have an uncountable number of words for snow, it may have been falsely alleged in the 18th century that the Arabs have 500 words for lion, the Somalis may have 46 words for camel, the Carrier may have a special word for yellow pond lily roots, but only the English have 997 words for penis. At least, according to a BBC reviewer, the publisher of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green has advertised the book by reference to this count. Along with the 1232 words for sexual intercourse, 856 words for vagina, 449 words for beer, 994 words for prostitutes, and 707 words for marijuana.

I predict that Geoff Pullum won't care, despite his U.K.-ish origins. However, the "group X has Y words for Z" meme touches some deeply-resonant chord in most members of our species. So far, interest in this topic has not been observed in apes or parrots. I have not seen an explanation in terms of evolutionary psychology for the species-specificity of this obsession, so there may be an opportunity here for a new research project. The lack of animal models will make neurophysiological investigation more difficult, but perhaps someone will track the trait among Icelanders so that the "snowclone gene" (first hypothesized right here!) can be identified.

(Tip of the hat to Ray Girvan who pointed the way to the BBC review)

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 4, 2004 10:25 AM