The Frontal Cortex

Snow and Inuit Vocabulary

Here in central New Hampshire, we got another 10-12 inches of snow last night. It’s been a winter of heavy precipitation, with sleet giving way to wet snow which turns into powder which eventually freezes into rock solid ice. This post was originally going to be about how I now understand why the Inuit language has split “snow” into so many different and specific nouns: there really are that many different types of snow. (Keep in mind that I’m a native Southern Californian, so I thought snow was something they manufactured on cold days for ski slopes.)

But then I discovered this inconvenient fact: that classic story about Inuit language and snow isn’t quite right. Like so many really good linguistic stories (i.e., Sapir-Whorf), the story of Inuit nouns and snow is too good to be true. Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum describes what’s really going on:

The story about Inuit (or Inuktitut, or Yup’ik, or more generally, Eskimo) words for snow is completely wrong. People say that speakers of these languages have 23, or 42, or 50, or 100 words for snow — the numbers often seem to have been picked at random. The spread of the myth was tracked in a paper by Laura Martin (American Anthropologist 88 (1986), 418-423), and publicized more widely by a later humorous embroidering of the theme by G. K. Pullum (reprinted as chapter 19 of his 1991 book of essays The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). But the Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn’t that long: 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.

That does not mean there are huge numbers of unrelated basic terms for huge numbers of finely differentiated snow types. It means that the notion of fixing a number of snow words, or even a definition of what a word for snow would be, is meaningless for these languages. You could write down not just thousands but millions of words built from roots that refer to snow if you had the time. But they would all be derivatives of a fairly small number of roots. And you could write down just as many derivatives of any other root: fish, or coffee, or excrement.

Anyways, we really should have more words for snow.

Comments

  1. #1 CRM-114
    December 31, 2007

    I have quite a few words for snow, but none of them are printable. Having seen 40 below with a 40 knot wind at 4:00 in the morning was enough for me: I gave up and moved to sunny Southern California.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    December 31, 2007

    The best meta-joke I’ve heard about this particular canard is the following: “Hey, you know the Eskimo have sixty-nine words for snow? Yeah, but they’ve lost 37 of them because of global warming.”

  3. #3 anon
    December 31, 2007

    I seem to remember a take-off on that listing 50+ German words for “urinating”.

  4. #4 Dave Briggs
    December 31, 2007

    I have quite a few words for snow, but none of them are printable. Having seen 40 below with a 40 knot wind at 4:00 in the morning was enough for me: I gave up and moved to sunny Southern California.

    Posted by: CRM-114 | December 31, 2007 11:17 AM

    LOL! I feel the same way! I grew up in Wisconsin with 30 below and 10 feet of snow. Have lived in Alaska with 50 below and mountains of that white stuff. When it feels like the environment is trying to kill me I get oddly uncomfortable! LOL! So I settled In East Tennessee. No snow, earthquakes or hurricanes or anything!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  5. #5 Jose Izquierdo
    March 26, 2011

    Your last comment “we should really have more words for snow” sums it up for me. The sense that there is something more to snow than the conceptual stamp we put on it. Snow as anything else has unfathomable depth. Ancient people recognized some of this depth and gave snow living qualities that are lost in translation. Snow came from the heavens to give them shelter, water, tools etc. The snow has beingness your last comment reveals your silent recognition of your being, that there is more to snow that meets the eye.
    An you are right look at the research of Masaru Emoto.