The Pleasures of the Passeggiata

Savouring the subtle delights of strolling

Posted May 08, 2018

Pexels (free stock photo - adapted)
Source: Pexels (free stock photo - adapted)

If you’ve had the good fortune to visit Italy, you may have marvelled at a wonderful scene at dusk: people out strolling at leisure, perhaps even without a specific destination in mind, simply to savour the delights of a warm Mediterranean evening. Such are the joys of a passeggiata.

Unique cultural concepts

As readers of previous blogposts will already appreciate, this is an ‘untranslatable’ word (i.e., one which lacks an exact equivalent in our own tongue). These reveal phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture. For that reason, I’ve been collecting such words, specifically ones relating to wellbeing (being a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving positive lexicography, as I explore in two new books (see bio for details).

And, this includes the delightful passeggiata. For instance, one might argue that ‘strolling’ conveys something similar. However, this generic verb lacks the resonance that passeggiata has in Italian culture. For instance, in her ethnography of an Italian village, Giovanna del Negro valorises passeggiata as a vital ‘cultural performance,’ weighty with import and tradition1. In that sense, it is not simply about taking a turn in pleasant surroundings; it is also a vibrant social act, a communal spectacle in which one is both observer and performer.

Such acts and traditions are not limited to Italy, of course. Indeed, many countries in the Mediterranean region – and beyond – have similar practices, from the Greek volta to the French flânerie. Moreover, these likewise have their cultural symbolism and significance. Scholars have suggested that the latter, for example, came to prominence in the 19th Century, where it was closely associated with Romantic ideals such as the pursuit of beauty. In that context, people with the time and inclination to engage in the activity – who were given the label flâneur – were generally well-regarded as special or otherwise admirable individuals.

Language, culture, and place

Reflecting on such words, one can’t help wonder why they emerged in their respective cultures. For instance, these words hail from temperate countries that are well-suited, particularly in balmy summer months, to languid acts of strolling in the warm evening air. By contrast, my rain-swept homeland of England is far less conducive to such acts of savouring. Or at least, the opportunities for doing so are not nearly frequent enough to warrant the formation of a tradition (and accompanying lexicon) around them.

 As such, these practices illustrate a more general and notable phenomenon: the intersection between language, culture, climate, and geography. Indeed, this phenomenon is at the root of one of the most famous, or rather infamous, ideas in linguistics: that ‘Eskimos’ – a contentious but widely-used collective label for the indigenous peoples of the northern circumpolar region2 – have many different words for snow.

‘Eskimos’ and snow

The genesis of this idea, and the way it has become an urban myth, is a fascinating tale in itself3. It was initiated by legendary anthropologist Franz Boas, who noted that the Inuit have words for four different types of snow4. The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf subsequently embraced the idea, and raised the tally to seven terms. From there it escalated still further, with people claiming as many as four hundred or so different words5. Such was this linguistic inflation that the whole topic has been provocatively dismissed as a ‘hoax’6.

However, its veracity depends on what we mean by a ‘word’. Eskimo-Aleut languages are agglutinative, creating complex words by combining morphemes. Theoretically, such languages can thus create a near infinity of such words in that way. Does that mean these languages have greater lexical complexity than English with respect to snow? Technically, no. After all, English can arguably express itself with equal dexterity through adjectives.

However, hypothetical possibilities aside, surely a lexicon’s scope is ultimately determined by usage. Eskimo–Aleut and English speakers may well have comparable capacity to speak about snow with great specificity, the former through agglutination, the latter through adjectives. However, most English speakers have little reason to call upon that ability. Eskimo cultures evolved in a physical environment that is dominated by snow in a way that most English-speaking cultures are not. As such, Eskimo–Aleut languages contain many more words in actual usage pertaining to snow, as many as a thousand distinct lexemes by some estimates7.

The linguistic relativity hypothesis

This digression into Eskimos and snow reinforces the more general point about the intersection of language, culture, and place. This intersection is but one instance of the broader ‘linguistic relativity hypothesis’ – or alternatively the ‘Sapir–Whorf’ principle, after the pioneering work Edward Sapir8 and his student Whorf9. For the essence of this theory is that peoples’ understanding and perception of the world is influenced by their language, which in turn is shaped by factors such as climate and geography.

As one might imagine, this theory and its ramifications have been much studied and debated over the decades10. But, without delving into the complexities of the topic, it is surely uncontroversial to say that our surroundings shape the possibilities for the activities we engage in, and the lexicon we develop as a result – as passeggiata so nicely demonstrates.

References

[1] G.P. Del Negro. The Passeggiata and Popular Culture in an Italian Town: Folklore and Performance of Modernity. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press, 2005), 16.

[2] Alaska Native Language Center: www.uaf.edu/anlc

[3] Martin, L. (1986). "Eskimo words for snow": A case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example. American Anthropologist, 88(2), 418-423.

[4] F. Boas. Handbook of American Indian Languages (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1911).

[5] L. Martin, ‘“Eskimo words for snow”: a case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example’. American Anthropologist 88, no. 2 (1986): 418–423.

[6] G.K. Pullum, ‘The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax’. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7, no. 2 (1989): 275–281.

[7] O.H. Magga, ‘Diversity in Saami terminology for reindeer, snow, and ice’. International Social Science Journal 58, no. 187 (2006): 25–34, at 25.

[8] E. Sapir, ‘The status of linguistics as a science’. Language (1929): 207–214.

[9] B.L. Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. J.B. Carroll (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956), at 213–214.

[10] Lucy, J. A. (1997). Linguistic relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26(1), 291-312.