Eskimo words for snow

Eskimo words for snow

It is a popular urban legend that the Inuit or Eskimo have an unusually large number of words for snow.

In reality, the number of words depends on the definitions of "Eskimo" (there are a number of languages) and "snow", and on the method of counting numbers of words in languages that have quite different grammatical structures from English. [ [http://users.utu.fi/freder/Pullum-Eskimo-VocabHoax.pdf "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax"] , Geoffrey Pullum, Chapter 19, p. 159-171 of "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language", Geoffrey K. Pullum, With a Foreword by James D. McCawley. 246 p., 1 figure, 2 tables, Spring 1991, LC: 90011286, ISBN 978-0-226-68534-2]

Origins and significance of the legend

The first reference to Eskimo having multiple words for snow is in the introduction to "The Handbook of North American Indians" (1911) by linguist and anthropologist Franz Boas. He mentions that Eskimos have four words: "aput" ("snow on the ground"), "qana" ("falling snow"), "piqsirpoq" ("drifting snow"), and "qimuqsuq" ("snowdrift"), where English has only one ("snow"). English has more than one snow-related word, but Boas' intent was to connect differences in culture with differences in language.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativism holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind General Semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having seven distinct words for snow. Later writers inflated the figure: by 1978, the number quoted had reached 50, and on February 9, 1984, an editorial in "The New York Times" gave the number as one hundred. [cite news|url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E04EFDB153BF93AA35751C0A962948260|title=There's Snow Synonym|date=February 9, 1984|accessdate=2008-06-07]

The idea that Eskimos had so many words for snow has given rise to the idea that Eskimos viewed snow very differently from people of other cultures. For example, when it snows, others see snow, but Eskimos could see any manifestation of their great and varied vocabulary. Vulgarized versions of Whorf's views hold not only that Eskimo speakers can choose among several snow words, but that they do not categorize all seven (or however many) as "snow": to them, each word is supposedly a separate concept. Thus language is thought to impose a particular view of the world — not just for Eskimo languages, but for all groups. Whorf, a well-informed and respectful student of Native American cultures, held more sophisticated views than this caricature would suggest.

Beyond the legend

There is no one Eskimo language. A number of cultures are referred to as Eskimo, and a number of different languages are termed Eskimo-Aleut languages.

It is reasonable to suppose that Eskimo languages would have several extra words to describe snow, which is specifically the point of Boas's theory. This is because they deal with snow more than other cultures, just as artists have more words to describe the various details of their profession — what a non-artist calls "paint", the artist identifies as "oil paint", "acrylic paint", or "watercolor". This does not mean that these two individuals are observing two different objects, nor does it mean that the artist would be confused by the idea that oil paint and acrylic paint are related.

In fact, the number of Eskimo words for snow is essentially unbounded, because Eskimo languages (like many native North American languages) are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages allow noun-incorporation, resulting in a single word that is the equivalent of a phrase in other languages (Spencer 1991), having a system of derivational suffixes for word formation to which speakers can recursively add snow-referring roots. As in English, there are a handful of these snow-referring roots, such as for "snowflake", "blizzard", "drift". What an English speaker would describe as "frosty sparkling snow" a speaker of an Eskimo language such as Inuinnaqtun would call "patuqun", and express "is covered in frosty sparkling snow" as "patuqutaujuq".Fact|date=April 2008 Arguably the "concept" is the same in both languages. This is true of things other than snow: "qinmiq" means "dog", "qinmiarjuk" "young dog", and "qinmiqtuqtuq" "goes by dog team".

Conclusion

There are two principal fallacies in this legend. The first is that Eskimo languages have more words for snow than English does, when they may have a few more or fewer, depending on which Eskimo language is considered.Fact|date=April 2008 These words are viewed as pertaining to the same concept: for example, blizzards and flurries are two different types of snow, but they are both recognized as 'snow' in the general sense. Speakers of Eskimo languages categorize different types of snow in a similar manner to English speakers.

The second fallacy comes from a misconception of what are to be considered "words". As in other polysynthetic languages, the use of derivational suffixes and noun-incorporation results in terms or language codes that may include various descriptive nuances, whether describing snow or any other concept. Because Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, they describe concepts in compound terms or 'words' of unlimited length.

See also

*Sapir–Whorf hypothesis
*Sami language
*Snowclone

Notes

References

* Martin, Laura (1986). "Eskimo Words for Snow: A case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example". "American Anthropologist" 88 (2), 418-23.
* Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1991). "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language". University of Chicago Press.
* cite book
last = Spencer
first = Andrew
title = Morphological theory
publisher = Blackwell Publishers Inc
date = 1991
pages = p. 38
id = ISBN 0-631-16144-9

External links

* [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000405.html Geoffrey K. Pullum's explanation from] Language Log
* [http://www.derose.net/steve/guides/snowwords/index.html An article describing the various problems with such an enumeration]
* [http://tafkac.org/language/eskimo_words_for_snow_derby.html Listing various polysynthetic Eskimo words]
* [http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_297.html The Straight Dope gives a technically correct answer and satirical editorializing]
* [http://www.straightdope.com/columns/010202.html The Straight Dope revisits its answer in the light of Pullum's book]

* Linguist List:
** [http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/5/5-1239.html#3 Snow' lexemes in Yup'ik]
** [http://linguistlist.org/issues/5/5-1293.html#1 Eskimo words for "snow", "ice", etc.]


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