Eskimo words for snow
||This article may contain original research. (July 2011)|
The "Eskimo words for snow" claim is a widespread, though disputed, idea that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow. In fact, the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word. A good deal of the ongoing debate thus depends on how one defines "word", and perhaps even "word root". Since at least the 1980s certain academics have advanced the idea of the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax", suggesting that the fact that number of word roots for snow is similar in Eskimoan languages and English proves that there exists no difference in the breadth of their respective vocabularies to define snow. Other specialists in the matter of Eskimoan languages and their knowledge of snow and especially sea ice, refute this notion and defend Boas's original fieldwork amongst the Inuit of Baffin island.
Languages in the Inuit and Yupik language groups add suffixes to words to express the same concepts expressed in English and many other languages by means of compound words, phrases, and even entire sentences. One can create a practically unlimited number of new words in the Eskimoan languages on any topic, not just snow, and these same concepts can be expressed in other languages using combinations of words. In general and especially in this case, it is not necessarily meaningful to compare the number of words between languages that create words in different ways due to different grammatical structures.
Opponents of the "Hoax" theory have stated that Boas, who lived among and learnt the language of the Baffin islanders, did in fact take account of the polysynthetic nature of Inuit language and included "only words representing meaningful distinctions" in his account. Further they state that the non-polysynthetic language of the Sami people actually includes around 180 snow and ice related words and as many as 1000 different words for reindeer.
 Origins and significance
To take again the example of English, we find that the idea of WATER is expressed in a great variety of forms: one term serves to express water as a LIQUID; another one, water in the form of a large expanse (LAKE); others, water as running in a large body or in a small body (RIVER and BROOK); still other terms express water in the form of RAIN, DEW, WAVE, and FOAM. It is perfectly conceivable that this variety of ideas, each of which is expressed by a single independent term in English, might be expressed in other languages by derivations from the same term. Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, qana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, piqsirpoq, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT.
The essential morphological question is why a language would say, for example, "lake", "river", and "brook" instead of something like "waterplace", "waterfast", and "waterslow". English has more than one snow-related word, but Boas's intent may have been to connect differences in culture with differences in language.
Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativity 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 several words for snow. Later writers inflated the figure in sensationalized stories: by 1978, the number quoted had reached fifty, and on February 9, 1984, an unsigned editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred.
The idea that Inuit had so many words for snow has given rise to the idea that Inuit 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 Inuit 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.
 Focal vocabulary hypothesis
Part of the supposition is that Eskimo languages would have a focal vocabulary with several extra words to describe snow, which is specifically the point of Boas's theory. 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", "tempera", 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. Likewise in English, the words "blizzard", "flurry", "pack", "slush", "drift", "sleet", and "powder" refer to different types of snow, but all are recognized as varieties of "snow" in a general sense.
 Defining "Eskimo"
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. These languages may have more or fewer words for "snow", or perhaps more importantly, more or fewer words which are commonly applied to snow, depending on which language is considered.
 Word boundary issues
There are several issues regarding the definition of "word":
- Inflection can create several permutations of the same root (lexeme). (Most writers count lexemes, not inflectional variants, in their comparisons.)
- Polysynthetic languages can mechanistically combine what would be several words in a phrase in another language into a single "word".
- English compounds and compounds in other languages can be written with a space, creating controversy over whether a "word" should be defined by an orthographic word divider or by lexeme status (whether a compound has an independent entry in a dictionary or lexicon).
- The same morpheme can appear in multiple lexemes, creating controversy over whether the lexemes are sufficiently "different".
 Eskimo word synthesis
By some definitions of "word", the number of Eskimo words for snow is approximately as large as the number of English sentences that can contain the word "snow", because Eskimo languages (like many native North American languages) are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages allow noun incorporation, resulting in a single compound word that is the equivalent of a phrase in other languages (Spencer 1991). The Eskimo languages have systems 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", much as an English speaker might use "sleet" and "sleet-covered". Arguably the concept is approximately 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". For this reason, some scientists of language have called into question the very idea of giving a discrete number of "words for snow" in Inuit languages.
 See also
- Geoffrey K. Pullum's explanation in Language Log: The list of snow-referring roots to stick [suffixes] on isn't that long [in the Eskimoan language group]: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning "slush", a root meaning "blizzard", a root meaning "drift", and a few others -- very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.
- The seven most common English words for snow are snow, hail, sleet, ice, icicle, slush, and snowflake. English also has the related word glacier and the four common skiing terms pack, powder, crud, and crust, so one can say that at least 12 distinct words for snow exist in English.
- Igor Krupnik, Ludger Müller-Wille, Franz Boas and Inuktitut Terminology for Ice and Snow: From the Emergence of the Field to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, SIKU: Knowing Our Ice, Springer Verlag, 2010.
- 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
- People who live in an environment in which snow or different kinds of grass, for example, play an important role are more aware of the different characteristics and appearances of different kinds of snow or grass and describe them in more detail than people in other environments. It is however not meaningful to say that people who see snow or grass as often but use another language have less words to describe it if they add the same kind of descriptive information as separate words instead of as "glued-on" (agglutinated) additions to a similar number of words. In other words, English speakers living in Alaska, for example, have no trouble describing as many different kinds of snow as Inuit speakers.
- David Robson, New Scientist 2896, December 18 2012, Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?, "Yet Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington DC believes that Boas was careful to include only words representing meaningful distinctions. Taking the same care with their own work, Krupnik and others have now charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and conclude that there are indeed many more words for snow than in English (SIKU: Knowing Our Ice, 2010). Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Nunavik, Quebec, has at least 53, including matsaaruti, wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh's runners, and pukak, for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt. For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer."
- Ole Henrik Magga, Diversity in Saami terminology for reindeer, snow, and ice, International Social Science Journal Volume 58, Issue 187, pages 25–34, March 2006.
- Martin, Laura. 1986. "Eskimo Words for Snow": A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example. American Anthropologist, 88(2):418.
- Boas, Franz. 1911. Handbook of American Indian languages pp. 25-26. Boas "utilized" this part also in his book The Mind of Primitive Man. 1911. pp. 145-146.
- Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1949. "Science and Linguistics" In Readings in social psychology. p217: [An Eskimo] 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.
- "There's Snow Synonym". The New York Times. February 9, 1984. Retrieved 2008-06-07.
 Further reading
- 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. 
- Spencer, Andrew (1991). Morphological theory. Blackwell Publishers Inc. p. 38. ISBN 0-631-16144-9.
- Kaplan, Larry (2003). Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What Does It Mean?. In: Building Capacity in Arctic Societies: Dynamics and shifting perspectives. Proceedings from the 2nd IPSSAS Seminar. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada: May 26-June 6, 2003, ed. by François Trudel. Montreal: CIÉRA—Faculté des sciences sociales Université Laval. 
- Cichocki, Piotr and Marcin Kilarski (2010). "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The life cycle of a linguistic misconception". Historiographia Linguistica 37 (3), 341–377. 
- Krupnik, Igor and Müller-Wille, Ludger (2010). Franz Boas and Inuktitut Terminology for Ice and Snow: From the Emergence of the Field to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, chapter in SIKU: Knowing Our Ice; Documenting Inuit Sea Ice Knowledge and Use, Springer Verlag, 2010, ISBN 978-90-481-8586-3.
- Robson, David (2012). Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?, New Scientist no. 2896, 72-73.