Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Im in ur X Yin(g) ur Z

So, I was working a nightshift recently, and while I was stacking tiles on the balencelles I was whiling away the time thinking stupid thoughts. As I often do. My mind took me wandering and I ended up thinking about this deal where Eskimos have so many words for snow.

My first thoughts were "what's the big deal?" Off the top of my head I could think of lots of words for snow, and if I extended the boundaries to include words for frozen water then there were dozens. And then to top that, unlike polysynthetic languages, English has adjectives, with which we can modify the noun. So even if we only had one word for snow, ie: "snow" we could still say bright snow, wet snow, crispy snow, crunchy snow, crunchy white dry snow etc etc. And that beats polysynthetic languages hands down.

Anyway, it turns out to be myth anyway, because a. There is no 1 Eskimo language because there are many Eskimo peoples, and b. because their languages tend to be polysynthetic, they make words up by adding words together so the number of snow words is as unlimited as the number of noun/adjective combinations we can use.

But, researching this stuff brought me to a fascinating thing. It seems that because the Eskimo words for snow thing is such a cliche, it gets used often by journalists. As in the example "If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy." So often has this sentence structure been used that the google search "if eskimos" will bring up hundreds of examples, but, at the top of the list of search results will be studies and language logs on this very phenomenon, which has been dubbed a "Snowclone"

A snowclone is a type of formula-based cliché that uses an old idiom in a new context.[1] It was originally defined as "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers

Examples given in the Snowclone database are:
A few X short of a Y as in A few cards short of a deck, A few fries short of a Happy Meal.
have X will travel
I am X, hear me Y

What warms my heart is not only is this linguistic phenomenon catalogued and studied, but studied with a geeky seriousness.

I also love the way things link, and how the internet is both a tool for studying those links as well as beeing the cause and mover of much of the phenomenon in the first place. hence the title of this entry. I am never up to date with trends and fashions. I only discover stuff after it has passed on and is no longer cool. I found "all your base are belong to us" and LOLcats way too late.



At 1:00 am, Blogger Erin said...

I think I learned about All Your Base way too late, too, but it didn't make it any less hilarious for that. :)

At 1:01 am, Blogger Erin said...

(Oops, meant to say: hi, here via the "blog stats" on the Snowclones Database, which I am the keeper of.)


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