Tag Archives: Eskimo words for snow

The ‘se accidental’ and linguistic relativity

The concluding pages of Manual Vázquez Montalbán’s Los mares del Sur, which I finally finished this morning, include a remarkable example of the so-called se accidental construction, a hallmark of modern Spanish. Vázquez’s detective, Pepe Carvalho, has caught the murderer he’s been pursuing for more than two hundred pages. The murderer’s confession includes the following passage:

El chiquito al que usted rompió el brazo le dio una cuchillada. A mí de pronto se me escapó el brazo y le di otra.

This translates as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm got away from me and I knifed him, too.

or, more literally though less naturally, as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm escaped itself on me and I knifed him, too.

The se accidental construction combines a reflexive verb (se escapó) with an indirect object pronoun (me). Se me escapó is an excellent example of how Spanish speakers use this construction to deflect blame. The murderer didn’t raise his arm to attack the victim: it was the arm itself that sprang into action.

In most cases, though, the se accidental is used to describe genuine accidents. This usage is common enough to have become an Internet meme; some cute examples are shown below, along with their expressive and literal translations.


The se accidental is linguistically significant because it is has been shown to affect the way that Spanish speakers perceive events. As you can see in the meme examples, the construction shifts attention away from the person who is responsible for an accidental event. A clever study by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky showed that Spanish speakers were therefore less likely than speakers of English to remember who caused an accident. Similar results have been found for speakers of Japanese, which has a similar structure.

The se accidental is thus a lovely example of “linguistic relativity”, the linguistic term for language differences that affect the way people think. Another common term for linguistic relativity is the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, after the two linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The latter is notorious in linguistic circles for having spawned the now thoroughly-debunked linguistic legend that Eskimo languages have an outsize number of words for snow.

Linguistic relativity recently went to Hollywood, playing a major role in the movie Arrival. In this film a linguist (Amy Adams) pairs with a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to decipher an alien language, and finds that this process drastically changes the way she understands the world. The se accidental isn’t quite as dramatic as Adams’ new-found ability to predict the future, but it’s certainly more realistic.

By the way, my husband and I got a special kick out of Arrival because I am a linguist (like Adams’s character) and he is a former Los Alamos physicist (like Renner’s). We actually know several other linguist/physicist couples. Perhaps linguists and physicists attract each other because both fields apply scientific thinking to everyday domains. This could be the subject of yet another research project!

Lexicalizing the differently abled

When my Spanish class learned about Don Quijote in high school, our teacher explained that Cervantes’s nickname was El manco de Lepanto because he had lost the use of his left hand when he was wounded in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. I found it interesting that Spanish had a special word, manco, for people with this disability (it usually implies actual loss of the limb).

Since then, even though the topic might be politically incorrect, I’ve become mildly fascinated with the small but significant set of vocabulary that Spanish uses for disabilities and other physical conditions. Besides manco there are zurdo and diestro (for left- and right-handed), tuerto and bizco (one-eyed and cross-eyed), and romo (snub-nosed). Using proper linguistic terminology, we can say that Spanish has lexicalized these concepts instead of using other words to describe them, as we do in English.

Most of these words come from Latin. Diestro is from dexter, meaning “right-handed” (or “skillful”, sorry), tuerto and bizco from tortus and versus, both meaning “twisted”, and manco from mancus, meaning “maimed” (a word related to manus “hand”). Romo comes from Portuguese rombo “rounded” and zurdo is of unknown pre-Roman origin.

To be fair, several words for physical conditions are lexicalized in both Spanish and English. These include ciego/blindsordo/deaf, mudo/mute, and tullido/cojo/crippled/lame. Moreover, the concept of a stutterer is lexicalized in English but only partially in Spanish (tartamudo combines the onomatopoetic tarta with mudo), while neither language lexicalized corcovado/hunchback.

I’m well aware of the danger of jumping to cultural conclusions based on language differences. The putatively prolific Eskimo words for snow are a notorious linguistic urban legend, as Geoffrey Pullum so ably explained in his title essay here:

Only recently has more solid research linking language and thought emerged, and it has to do with widespread patterns in language, like the se accidental construction in Spanish, rather than a handful of words. As a further caveat, my familiarity with this vocabulary domain is limited to Spanish and English. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to see the greater quantity of lexicalized words of this type in Spanish as going hand-in-hand with a macabre streak in the Hispanic psyche, along with bullfighting, El día de los muertos (I know, it’s a happy holiday, but still…), and the truly gory crucifixions one sees in many Spanish churches.

For what it’s worth, then — probably, not much! — my little list is yours. Make of it what you will.