Weather: Outwitted by Inuit - the Eskimo snow mystery resolved
Thursday 15 January 1998
William Hartston explains.
I have just received (with eternal gratitude to Prof David Reidel, of the University of York) a copy of a paper entitled "The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax" by Geoffrey Pullum (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, Vol 7, 1989). This is the paper that nails, once and for all, the myth that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow, and it is one of the most entertaining shaggy academic tales I have read for a long time.
The original source of the myth, about "these lexically profligate hyperborean nomads" as Pullum describes them, is Franz Boas' introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians (1911) where the author gives examples of independent versus derived terms for related things. While English may have words such as liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave and foam - all formed from different roots - another language might describe them all by words derived from a single root meaning `water'. Eskimo, he says, uses the distinct roots aput `snow on the ground', qana `falling snow', ,piqsirpoq, `drifting snow', qimuqsuq, `a snow drift', while English cannot get away from "snow".
"What happened next," Pullum explains, "was that Benjamin Lee Whorf, Connecticut fire prevention inspector and weekend language-fancier, picked up Boas' example and used it, vaguely, in his 1940 amateur linguistics article `Science and linguistics', which was published in MIT's promotional magazine Technology Review."
With apparently no knowledge of Inuit languages, Whorf wrote: "We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, wind-driven snow - whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow."
Adding together these examples, we see that Boas' four Eskimo words for snow have been inflated into at least seven, and as more popular sources got hold of Whorf's paper, the number grew and grew. Pullum gives examples, from 1978 and 1984, of "fifty", "nine", "a hundred" and "two hundred". Even the science section of the New York Times in 1988, said "four dozen".
"Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmission and elaboration of a false claim," Pullum laments, "is that even if there were a large number of roots for different types of snow in some Arctic language, this would not, objectively, be intellectually interesting. It would be a most mundane and unremarkable fact ... only the link to those legandary, promiscuous, blubber-gnawing hunters of the ice-packs could permit something this trite to be presented to us for contemplation."
So what are we to do when yet another person tells us of all the Eskimo words for snow? "Don't be a coward like me," advises Pullum, recalling an incident when he had quietly left the room. "Stand up and tell the speaker this: CW Shultz-Lorentzen's Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (1927) gives just two possible relevant roots: qanik, meaning `snow in the air' or `snowflake' and aput, meaning `snow on the ground'. Then add that you would be interested to know if the speaker can cite any more."
He says it will have the effect of pouring thick oatmeal into a harpsichord during a recital, but "it will strike a blow for truth, responsibility, and standards of evidence in linguistics."
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