Weather: Eskimo snow words - The debate drifts on

Last week, we gave the lie to that hoary old myth about Eskimos having dozens of words for snow. On the other snowshoe, however, it could be said that they do have dozens of words ... It all depends how you count them.

First let me thank all the readers who have pointed me towards more information on the Great Eskimo Snow Vocabulary mystery. Putting everything together, I can now add considerably to last Thursday's briefing.

On that occasion, we may have given the impression that Eskimos have only two distinct words for snow. We should now like to make it clear that the correct figure is 49, or possibly 15 or 10. Or you could say that it's only two after all. It depends what you mean by "Eskimo", and "word" and "snow".

How many words does English have for snow? Well, there's blizzard, slush, sleet and avalanche, for a start. And should we include hail, powder, flurry, frost and igloo? And what about snowman and snowball?

In West Greenlandic, the word nittaallat means air thick with snow. The plural form nittaallaq means snowflakes, and flurries of snow are nittaalaq nalliuttiqattaartuq, while hard grains of snow are nittaalaaqqat. All of which must greatly decrease the value of the "q" in Greenlandic Scrabble, but illustrates well the problem of counting words. These are all clearly derived from the same root. West Greenlandic has a habit of stringing words together to form longer compounds.

Then there's the question of what we mean by Eskimo. These nomadic chappies speak two distinct languages, Yupik and Inuit, each of which may be subdivided into various dialects. As if that linguistic variability were not enough, lady Eskimos are liable to have different words to describe things from those of their menfolk.

In a highly informative article which you may find on the Internet at http://www.urbanlegends.com/ language/ eskimo_words_for_snow_ derby.htm Stuart Derby lists 10 basic words for snow and ice, then 49 derived forms from West Greenlandic. Though the grounds for including imarnirsaq (an opening in sea ice) in a list of words for snow seems rather tenuous.

If you don't like all this, you may try instead http://cpsr.org/cpsr/lists/rre/ Eskimo_words_for_snow where Anthony Woodbury talks not about words but lexemes - the linguist's independent vocabulary items. He lists 15 distinct snowy lexemes from the Central Alaskan Yupik-speaking region, but leave it the reader whether to include them as true snow-words and whether to count qanisqinek (snow floating on water) and qanikcaq (snow on the ground) as independent thoughts or just forms of the same basic word.

So the next time anyone tells you about the hundreds of Eskimo words for snow, ask first whether he means West Greenlandic or Yupik. Then ask whether we're talking words or lexemes. Finally, quote Basse & Jensen's Eskimo Languages: Their Present Day Conditions, 1979: "Bourquin's tendency to describe the Labrador dialect by quoting from Kleinschmidt's description of Greenlandic is unavoidably a major methodological impediment for present- day researchers." Then walk away.

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