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June 06, 2003

ESKIMO SNOW

As everybody knows, the Eskimo have dozens, if not hundreds, of different words for snow, which proves the cultural relativity of knowledge, perception, or whatever.

Except that they don’t. I have occasionally seen sceptical comments about the Eskimo snow words, but I have only just found an authoritative reference:

Laura Martin: “Eskimo words for snow”: a case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example. American Anthropologist, 1986, vol. 88, 418-22.

Laura Martin traces the origin of the great snow myth to a book by Franz Boas, where he mentions four Eskimo snow-related words to illustrate a point about the structure of Eskimo language. But the story really took off when Benjamin Lee Whorf used the snow example in an essay on ‘Science and Linguistics’. Unlike Boas, Whorf (who actually had no expert knowledge of Eskimo language) was vague about the number of snow words, but claimed that they showed the way in which language structures perception and thought. After Whorf, the example spread, and (sorry!) snowballed out of control, until in 1984 a New York Times editorial could confidently assert that the Eskimos distinguished 100 different types of snow.

So how many different words do the Eskimo have for snow? Well, it depends how you count them, but according to Martin, ‘There seems to be no reason to posit more than two different roots that can properly be said to refer to snow itself’.

Mind you, English slang does have at least fifty words for penis...


DAVID BURBRIDGE

Posted by David B at 02:48 AM




Interesting. I have also that there are 500 Arabic words for sand (in fact, the clause is usually next to, "..as in the Eskimo language, where there are many words for snow.") That's probably bogus, too.

Boas sure wrote a lot of crap!

Posted by: Diana at June 6, 2003 06:47 AM


Mind you, English slang does have at least fifty words for penis...

perhaps indicative of the prevelance of homosexuals in the literary arts? also, arabic has 500 words for killing jews, not sand. ok...bad jk ;)

Posted by: razib at June 6, 2003 08:20 AM


Straight Dope did a column on this many years ago. He found that they had descriptive distinctions for various kinds of snow, but this was lots of adjectives, not lots of nouns.

Posted by: triticale at June 6, 2003 05:54 PM


Straight Dope did a column on this many years ago. He found that they had descriptive distinctions for various kinds of snow, but this was lots of adjectives, not lots of nouns.

Posted by: triticale at June 6, 2003 05:54 PM


I hate when that happens. Twitchy trigger finger. Anyway, regarding words for penis, NPR had a show many years ago on which their commentator interviewed a diplomatic interpreter. He mentioned the difficulty of conveying insults. There is so much information missing in "He called you a word meaning penis."

Posted by: triticale at June 6, 2003 05:57 PM


Someone once observed that "Computer programmers have as many words for 'failure' as Yiddish has for 'annoying person'."

I wonder if skiers have as many -- or more -- adjectival terms for snow as do Eskimos. Of course, once you introduce quantitative terms, like "12 inches of packed powder", you can have a vast number of precisely differentiated terms.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at June 6, 2003 07:36 PM


Steve Pinker calls the whole 'eskimo words for snow" thing a myth in the language instinct as well. English has just about as many words for different kinds of snow. Though to my knowledge no one has yet debunked that Italians do indeed have many words for different types of macaroni.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at June 7, 2003 01:34 PM


The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991).

Posted by: zizka at June 8, 2003 07:59 PM


Whoops. Deleted part of my entry. The book is by Geoffrey Pullum and includes a number of other scientific hoaxes and urban legends.

Eskimo is an agglutinative language and the formation of new words is easy, so the number of words in Eskimo is indefinite and basically infinite. Eskimo used to be called polysynthetic, and maybe still is, but based on what I read the terminology is on flux.

Posted by: zizka at June 8, 2003 08:06 PM


Pinker not only nailed the Eskimo-snow myth but specifically tracked it back to the Frankfurt School, IIRC, in "The Language Instinct". What a cop-out the last few sentences of that splendid tome now seem, especially after he'd skewered the we're-nearly-the-same-as-chimps piffle. He does the same swerve round the race question in "The Blank Slate", and in a BBC interview linked to its publication came close to admitting that his publisher had forced him to skip it.

Posted by: WJ Phillips at June 11, 2003 04:28 PM


Yup - Pullum's book's a great read. The amazing thing is how fast the "snow" myth spread, with sources multiplied totally at random - the "original", IIRC, is from Benjamin Whorf (of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fame) who claimed there were five or six words for snow in passing. Which you could argue we do (sleet, snow, hail, blizzard, etc - don't remember the ideal comparative list).

Better though is his "Chomsky on the Enterprise", an interview with Noam with the interviewer replaced by Dr Spock...

Posted by: The Philosophical Cowboy at June 12, 2003 02:22 PM