Weather: The linguistic truth about kaniktshaq

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Much of what linguists have written about Eskimo words for snow has been pure invention. Whatever anyone may say to the contrary, however, they do have a large number of them.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a dubious linguistic theory which cited the large number of Eskimo words for snow as evidence for its validity. Several readers have now sent me glossaries of Inuit snow words, so let us take this opportunity to brush up our vocabulary and debunk some myths in good time for the first snowfalls of winter.

The problem seems to have started with two American linguists and anthropologists Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) who developed an influential theory about the interdependence between language and thought. In their view words evolved to describe commonly encountered concepts and people's conceptual abilities were formed by their experience of language.

Whorf cited several examples in support of the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis", including the Hopi language of American Indians which had only one word for everything that flies except birds, and the contrast between English having only one word for snow, while the Eskimos had a wide variety of them.

Later generations of linguists, however, disproved many of the ideas behind this theory. When it was found that certain aborigine tribes had very few words for numbers, the theory would have predicted that they were numerically challenged, both verbally and conceptually. yet when taught other languages, they had no problems with number words. The conceptual ability was there, even though their language had no words for it.

Deciding that Sapir and Whorf were wrong, many linguists then jumped to the conclusion that Eskimos did not, after all, have many words for snow. (In fact there is considerable evidence that whoever first produced the remarkable fact about the richness of Inuit snow vocabulary did not really know anything of Eskimo languages.) So the modern myth was born that Eskimos have only one word for snow.

They do have the all-purpose snow word kaniktshak, but, as several dictionaries attest, they also have aput (snow on the ground), qana (falling snow), piqsirpoq (drifting snow), qimuqsuq (a snowdrift), uqaluraq (a tongue- shaped snowdrift), uangniut (a snow-drift formed by the north-west wind, qiqiqralijarnatuq (snow that is squeaky or crunchy underfoot) among several dozen others. No reliable estimate is possible for precisely how many Inuit words for snow there really are, because so many are in a rather vague area between snow, ice, rain and frostbite.

The most persistent error of all among linguists, however, is the view that English has only one word for snow. A quick browse through the Oxford English Dictionary reveals flaw or flaughen for a flake of snow; flight or flother for a violent snowstorm; crump, a verb applied to the sound made by the feet in crushing slightly frozen snow; snitter, a verb of falling as applied to snow; lopper, partly melted snow; penitent, a spike or pinnacle of compact snow or ice; snew, to sprinkle like snow; and wap, a Scottish dialect term for a sudden storm of snow.

In fact, even if you ignore the common words such as snow and slush, English has 25 different words for snow. Which, I think, is one of the favourite numbers attributed to Inuit.

Comments