August 21, 2006

Earnest snowclone of the month

Although the Eskimos are horseless, alert readers will sense them hovering in the background as Lawrence Scanlan reviews J. Edward Chamberlin's How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations and Margeret E. Derry's Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920. Scanlan's lead:

The Blackfoot of the Plains had more than 100 words for the colours of horses, the Kazaks of central Asia 62 for bay shades alone. These are not just numerical curiosities from old horse societies, but signs of a human watchfulness and a deep connectedness to the natural world that was the norm, and is now rare. ["The horses we rode in on", Globe and Mail, posted online 8/19/2006]

If you know enough Blackfoot or Kazak to evaluate these claims, or can find a relevant reference, let me know. [Hat tip: Patrick King.]

[Update -- Alexander Jabbari writes:

As I'm sure you know, the "Eskimo words for snow" issue stems partially from Inuit's richly agglutinative morphology (and partially from bad journalism). Kazak is similar in that it is also very agglutinative and forms new nouns by adding a number of affixes to a root noun. It's thus very plausible that it has 62 "words" for different shades, but these are no more distinct words than "dark brown" is a distinct word from "light brown" in English; they're merely compounded into "darkbrown" and "lightbrown".

While I'm not familiar with Blackfoot to any degree, it is also an agglutinating language (according to Wikipedia) so I suspect it's another case of a writer's inability to understand polysynthesis.

So the 62 Kazak words for "bay shades" are like "light bay" and "dark bay" and "pretty dark bay" and "somewhat darkish bay but not really that dark, actually", and so forth? On that basis, surely there are going to be many more than 62. Can anyone supply some information about the specific vocabulary that actually might be used for horse colors in these languages? ]

[Update #2 -- Bridget Samuels writes:

Finally, LL reports on a snowclone that I know something about! Well, that is to say, I don't know anything about Kazak or Blackfoot, but the claims seem plausible even for English. I have a big book about the genetics of horse color (aptly called Horse Color) stashed away somewhere in my folks' house, so when I go visit in a couple of weeks I'll be able to give you a more accurate report. But, having memorized much of the book when I was a [more] horse-crazed kid, I have a feeling there are more than 100 colors. It does depend how loosely you're going to define "color," though. Do you want to count all the different appaloosa and pinto coat patterns? Do you want to count "with flaxen mane & tail" as a separate color variant for each relevant coat color, or the various white markings on the legs and face, each of which have specific names? If so, I can't imagine that there are fewer than 100 distinct "horse colors" for which we have names in English. In my experience, quite a bit of the terminology is only used these days by people who are into specific breeds prized for their unusual color patterns, if at all, but it does exist in theory. (I remember one time in pony club when I was five or six, I'd just read Horse Color for the first time, and the trainer asked me to name the color of a specific pony. I contemplated the stout little appy for a moment and spouted out a long stream of words that the woman had apparently never heard before. She didn't quite know what to say.)


[Update #3 -- Peter Austin writes:

David Harrison has written a nice account of Tuvan yak naming conventions in a paper called 'Ethnographically informed language documentation' published in "Language Documentation and Description Volume 3" (2005) available from

There is a hierarchy of terminology for head markings, body patterns and body colours that is more suggestive of complexity than mere lists of lexical items for colour.

The Sasaks of Lombok, Indonesia, have a complex system of describing water buffalo that includes both body colour and patterns, as well as shape and directions of horns.


[Update #4 -- Gary Daine sent in a link to a page that "shows many of the specific terms used for the colouring of 'toros bravos', with illustrations". So we have English terminology for horse colors, and Tuvan terminology for Yak colors, and Spanish words for bull colors -- but we're still missing the actual Blackfoot and Kazak horse color vocabulary. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 21, 2006 12:58 PM