Why Names Have Power

[This is a guest post by Talia’s girlfriend Annie, who is managing this blog while Talia is away at Middlebury Language Schools.]

In his memoir, physicist Richard Feynman shares an anecdote about going birdwatching with his father as a child:

One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?”

I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.”

He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!”

But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.)... You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

I’ve always loved this passage. A name feels like knowledge, and it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we understand something just because we know what it’s called. But a name alone doesn’t give us any information that we can do anything with. For instance, when I was a little kid, I loved drawing robots, and I always made sure to show that my robots had an anode and a cathode. Six-year-old Annie fancied herself quite scientifically knowledgeable for knowing what an anode and a cathode were. But I don’t think she could have told you what anodes and cathodes actually do, or why a robot would need them.

There is, however, a flip side to this. As any philosopher worth their salt will tell us, the map is not the territory. But you can’t fold the territory up and put in your pocket. The external world doesn’t come to us neatly packaged for human consumption; it comes in the form of a panoply of complicated information from our senses with no clear markers of what is significant. To give something a name is to draw a line around a little bit of this information soup and say “Look, this is important! Pay attention to this!” Once we’ve picked something out like this, we can distinguish its unique properties and communicate them to other people. It’s gone from being part of the background noise of reality to being something we can consciously interact with, and potentially make use of. Naming our world gives us power over our world.

This is a concept that linguists run into all the time when we study languages other than our own. Different people and cultures treat different facets of the world as significant, so different languages end up drawing these lines differently. In his book The Last Speakers, linguist K. David Harrison writes:

I began to think of language as existing not only in the head, or perhaps not entirely in the heads of speakers, but in local landscapes, objects, and lifeways. Languages animate objects by giving them names, making them noticeable when we might not otherwise be aware of them. Tuvan has a word iy (pronounced like the letter e), which indicates the short side of a hill. I had never noticed that hills had a short side. But once I learned the word, I began to study the contours of hills, trying to identify the iy. It turns out that hills are asymmetrical, never perfectly conical, and indeed one of their sides tends to be steeper and shorter than the others. If you are riding a horse, carrying firewood, or herding goats on foot, this is a highly salient concept. You never want to mount a hill from the iy side, as it takes more energy to ascend, and an iy descent is more treacherous, as well. Once you know about the iy, you see it in every hill and identify it automatically, directing your horse, sheep, or footsteps accordingly. This is a perfect example of how language adapts to local environment, by packaging knowledge into ecologically relevant bits. Once you know that there is an iy, you don’t really have to be told to notice it or to avoid it. You just do. The language has taught you useful information in a covert fashion, without explicit instruction.

The Tuvan language has taken this environmental knowledge – which wouldn’t necessarily be obvious on its own – and encapsulated it into an easily accessible form.

Or, take the debate over indigenous languages of the Arctic and their words for snow. (Please!) It’s a common misconception that these languages have an unusually large number of words for snow and ice – depending on how one counts it, they don’t necessarily have many more than English. But overzealous corrections of this misconception can overlook the way these languages’ words for snow are in fact noteworthy. Harrison gives the following examples of words for ice in the Yupik language, quoted from the book Watching Ice and Weather Our Way, a compendium of traditional Yupik environmental knowledge:

Qenu: Newly forming slush ice. It forms when it first gets cold. Pequ: Ice that was bubbled up by pressure ridging. [The] bulb cracks and falls down, and when it breaks, the water shows up. It is then covered by new ice or snow and it is very dangerous to walk on... Nutemaq: Old ice floes that are thick and appear to have had a snow bank on them for a long period of time. Good to work on. Nuyileq: Crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear

To a linguist, what’s interesting about these words isn’t their number per se, but the fact that they encode knowledge in a way that’s particularly useful for surviving in the Arctic. Pequ, nutemaq, and nuyileq, are all “ice,” but only nutemaq is safe to walk on. An English speaker would need to give a detailed description to convey what a Yupik speaker can express in a single word.

Finally, let’s return to Feynman and the birds:

[My father] said, “For example, look: the bird pecks at its feathers all the time. See it walking around, pecking at its feathers?”


He says, “Why do you think birds peck at their feathers?”

I said, “Well, maybe they mess up their feathers when they fly, so they’re pecking them in order to straighten them out.”

“All right,” he says. “If that were the case, then they would peck a lot just after they’ve been flying. Then, after they’ve been on the ground a while, they wouldn’t peck so much any more – you know what I mean?”


He says, “Let’s look and see if they peck more just after they land.”

It wasn’t hard to tell: there was not much difference between the birds that had been walking around a bit and those that had just landed. So I said, “I give up. Why does a bird peck at its feathers?”

“Because there are lice bothering it,” he says. “The lice eat flakes of protein that come off its feathers.”

He continued, “Each louse has some waxy stuff on its legs, and little mites eat that. The mites don’t digest it perfectly, so they emit from their rear ends a sugar-like material, in which bacteria grow.”

Finally he says, “So you see, everywhere there’s a source of food, there’s some form of life that finds it.”

So here’s an exercise for you to try: next time you go outside, look around and take in the sea of sensory data you’re swimming in. Find some little piece of it that interests you – a bird, maybe, or a plant, or an insect, or anything that catches your eye. Do what Feynman and his father did, and observe it in as much detail as you can. Notice what it does, and try to figure out why. But then go one step further and give it a name. You don’t have to know the “real” word for it; just call it something that will stick in your memory. The next time you see it, your new word will be waiting in your mind, and all your observations will be there with it. By naming that part of reality, you’ll have made it a part of you.

Feynman, Richard P. Classic Feynman. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, New York, NY.
Harrison, K. David. The Last Speakers. National Geographic Society, 2010, Washington, D.C.