November 24, 2004

That the same kinds are not everywhere uniquely named

Geoff Pullum properly ridicules a Reuters story that tries to stir up sentiment about global warming by inciting sympathy for an alleged lexicographic challenge to Arctic indigenes:

What are the words used by indigenous peoples in the Arctic for "hornet," "robin," "elk," "barn owl" or "salmon?" If you don't know, you're not alone.
Many indigenous languages have no words for legions of new animals, insects and plants advancing north as global warming thaws the polar ice and lets forests creep over tundra.

This predicament has a classical precedent. Exactly the same problem confronted the ancient Romans, not because "new animals, insects and plants [advanced] north" but because the Romans themselves did.

Here's book ix, chapter 32 of Bostock & Riley's translation of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia. I've left out all the footnotes except for [7], which is the one that's relevant:



There is this also in the nature of fish, that some are more highly esteemed in one place, and some in another; such, for instance, as the coracinus in Egypt, the zeus, also called the faber, at Gades, the salpa, in the vicinity of Ebusus, which is considered elsewhere an unclean fish, and can nowhere be thoroughly cooked, wherever found, without being first beaten with a stick: in Aquitania, again, the river salmon[7] is preferred to all the fish that swim in the sea.

[7] Hardouin remarks, that Pliny and Ausonius are the only Latin writers that mention this fish; while not one among the Greeks speaks of it. It was probably a native of regions too far to the north for them to know much about it. In this country it holds the same rank that the scarus and the mullet seem to have held at the Roman tables.

The OED's etymology for salmon suggests that the Romans just called this new fish "the leaper", more or less:

[a. AF. samoun, saumoun, salmun (OF. and mod.F. saumon): -- L. salmon-em, salmo (Pliny); the spelling with l is from the Latin form.
Cf. Pr. salmo, Sp. salmon, Pg. salmão, It. salmone, sermone. The Latin word is prob. a derivative of the root of salire to leap.]

and the AHD's entry for PIE sel- agrees:

... Probably Latin salmo (borrowed from Gaulish), salmon (< “the leaping fish”)...

As Geoff points out, the Inuit's polysynthetic language puts them in a strong position to make up descriptive words like this. They could no doubt assign to salmon a word meaning "the fish with red flesh that swims upstream leaping", or something similar. Or they could borrow the English word, borrowed in its turn from French and Latin, where is was invented as a description (a calque from Gaulish?) of the fish leaping.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 24, 2004 10:15 AM