Humor Detection Module Not Innate

I recently learned (as a side effect of a dispute with David Robson, here, here, and here) about a paper I had overlooked back in 2010. “On ‘Eskimo Words for Snow’: The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception,” by Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski (Historiographia Linguistica 37, 2010, Pages 341-377), presents a detailed review of 100 years of discussion of snow terminology in Eskimoan languages, and then launches an attack on a man named Pullum who sounds like a blot on the scholarly landscape.

Pullum’s “empirical dogmatism coupled with theoretical banality” and his “crude radicalism” have “hindered sophisticated discussion about the issues.” A once rich debate on language and thought has been “restricted to the trivial issue of the number of terms for snow in Eskimo.” His tone is “impressionistic and emotionally charged.” He even “introduces personal elements to the discussion by channeling his resentment towards peer reviewers.”

Though “vocal about standards of academic evidence” in the work of others, he is guilty of “superficial treatment of sources” and “borrows most of his examples” (the hypocrite!). “Ironically, by violating the standards of academic evidence and propriety,” say C&K, “Pullum’s article itself gives a ‘testimony to falling standards in academia.’”

I began to despise this Pullum.

But then slowly I realized what had happened. It seemed implausible, but … C&K had read a humorous opinion column written a quarter-century ago and mistaken it for a refereed research paper.

The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” was in effect a blog post, though written in 1989, years before the medium of Weblogs existed. It was one of my columns for the Topic … Comment section of the journal Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, collected in this 1991 book. They were unrefereed opinion pieces written solely to entertain linguists, successfully according to many who let me know. “Hoax” in particular is regarded as laugh-out-loud funny, or so I’m told. (C&K think they see a comment about a referee on Page 161 of my book, but actually I quote an “irate but anonymous senior scholar” who wrote to NLLT after publication, trying to get me fired for mocking the revered Benjamin Lee Whorf.)

I did have one ulterior motive: to publicize a 1986 paper in American Anthropologist by Laura Martin (“Eskimo Words for Snow: A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example“), virtually unknown to linguists at the time. But mostly I was interested in poking fun at lazy writers who, trying to sound clever, deploy the stock formula “it is said that the Eskimos have N words for snow,” with randomly invented values for N increasing over the years.

The trope survives despite all my efforts to laugh it out of existence. Here’s Andrew Bolt in The Spectator on December 15:

It’s said the Eskimos have a dozen words for snow, being so familiar with the stuff. The Dutch, one of the most domesticated of peoples until recently, have their own almost untranslatable vocabulary to describe the various kinds of social cosiness they’ve long specialised in.

Classic off-the-rack thoughtless blather (we’re all familiar with water, but that doesn’t breed extra words for it)—though modest in its choice of N, for 12 is a small number compared with some of the array of arbitrary and unsupported figures you will find if you do a Google search on the phrase “words for snow.”

Counting the snow words in a language is pretty much impossible given the extraordinary vagueness of the undefined notion “snow word,” but even if possible, it is certainly trivial. And C&K blame the triviality on me, as if I had been attempting serious work but lacked the necessary vision and scholarship. They totally miss the fact that the triviality was my topic, and the credulity of the numerologists my satirical target.

I did adumbrate my opinion that snow terms in Inuit and Yup’ik dialects hold no lessons for us concerning language and cognition. Notice that English has a huge range of words for fools (blockhead, dope, dunderhead, idiot, moron, twit … the thesaurus has dozens), but that betokens no deep interest in fools, nor any native expertise in discriminating different types of dimwit. It yields no insights into English-speakers’ thoughts or perceptions. Examining the dictionary to get clues about the minds of its users is just a simplistic and silly idea.

But I didn’t offer any serious arguments bearing on such questions, and it is shocking to think that two learned Polish academics could think I was trying to. Are C&K so grim-jawed and humorless that they simply cannot detect levity? I would have judged it flatly impossible for anyone to read “Hoax” and not see that it was humorous. Apparently I was wrong. That’s scary.

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