Monday, September 14, 2009

Eskimo snow

That old chestnut about Eskimos having 100 words for snow? Not true. Linguists have been trying to dispel this myth for decades and date it back to the introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians, published in 1911 by German American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Boas pointed out that, like English has separate roots for words about water (liquid, lake, rain, dew...), Eskimo has separate roots for snow-related words:
  • aput - snow on the ground
  • gana - falling snow
  • piqsirpoq - drifting snow
  • qimuqsuq - snowdrift
The passage was misinterpreted and inflated by amateur American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), whose article was quoted, reprinted, and further embellished. Whorf's 7 snow terms became 9, then 50, then 100, then 200...even after anthropologist Laura Martin tried to set the record straight in 1982. Geoffrey K. Pullam makes another attempt to suppress the oft-repeated "factoid." Steven J. Derose points out several "counting" issues, including the fact that Eskimo is not a single language, but a term that encompasses 2 major cultural groups: Inuit and Aleut. Anthony C. Woodbury tallies up the snow-related lexemes in the Inuit language, Yu'pik. David Mendosa reprints a satirical list of the "100 words" that includes entries like "tliyel - snow that has been marked by wolves, hiryla - now in beards, and klin - remembered snow. And again Geoffrey K. Pullam gets the last word by stating that because Inuit has multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation, the words that Eskimos can apply to snow is actually infinite.

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