Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Eskimos of the desert

The idea of using power to benefit a small circle of friends, relatives and loyalists is so entrenched in the regional culture that there are half a dozen words in Arabic meaning patronage or cronyism.
--Los Angeles Times, as published in the Missourian (3A Wednesday)

It's tempting to think of this as just a checkable fact-claim, which of course is kinda what journalism is all about. So ... hmm, looks like two words for "patronage" in the Concise Oxford, two for "crony" in Elias' Modern (about as many as for "cretinous," if you're scoring along at home and can take a hint) -- sounds as if the author might be on to something.

On the other hand, the claim appears in the sixth graf, by which time we've already mentioned both patronage and influence-peddling. So English is halfway to "half a dozen words meaning patronage and cronyism" before the writer's done unwinding his anecdotal lede. At that rate, we'll surpass the wily Arabs before the jump.

Which is exactly the point. "The Arabs have half a dozen words for patronage" is first cousin to the unstoppable nonsense about the Eskimos and their alleged eighty bazillion words for "snow."* To the extent that they're true, such observations are essentially meaningless; to the extent that they have any meaning, they're almost invariably false. They take an unremarkable phenomenon** and turn it into a machine for cultural generalization -- "the quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us," says Geoffrey Pullum, and he's just getting warmed up.

It's all the more unfortunate because the article has a lot to offer; the description of the Egyptian and Syrian ruling parties as "basically patronage systems backed by security services" offers some insights into, say, the voter appeal of the Brotherhood in Egypt's elections. Why spoil it by waving the wand of linguistic relativism? Is there even a league table on which languages are scored by number of words for snow, or drunkenness, or political corruption? What would it mean to win?

I suppose, given the dateline, it's worth asking how many words for "cronyism" there are in Sulaymaniyah Kurdish, but the files around HEADSUP-L Manor are a little skimpy. I can't even figure out how many words they have for "snow."***

Moral of story: Whenever you see "they have NNNN words for ..." used to make a point about culture, sound the alarm. English has dozens of words for "bullshit," and those are five of them.

* The short answer is "no." The long answer is "really, not a lot more than English." Or "it's not too late to ask Santa for a copy of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax."
** Before you get started on how many words English has for "drunk" or "sex," ask yourself: Which English?
*** The word for "basketball," though, is "baskidbol" (Abdulla and Carlos, 1967). Don't say you aren't getting anything for your education dollar.


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