the great eskimo language hoax

kelley oudies at
Thu Nov 25 15:56:06 PST 1999

this snow biz was bugging me while basting that dang toikey. so when mom called i aked my communications prof step dad who spent some years among the innuit in the peace corps. the whole thing is a hoax that has been circulatted and recirculated. and i imagine that it works quite nicely to reinforce the exoticization of the other and our inability to see how our own language use operates and affects our lives.

more info on this at click on language.

Pullum, G.K. 1991. The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of languages. CHicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Pullum essay is in turn based on Martin, L. 1986. "Eskimo words for snow": A case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example. American Anthropologist, 88:418-423

And now, on with the show -)

--begin quotation--

Speaking of anthropological canards, no discussion of language and thought would be complete without the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English. They do not have four hundred words for snow, as has been claimed in print, or two hundred, or one hundred, or forty-eight, or even nine. One dictionary puts the figure at two. Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen, but by such standards English would not be far behind, with snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanch, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, dusting, and a coinage of Boston's WBZ-TV meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler, snizzling.

Where did the myth come from? Not from anyone who has actually studied the Yupik and Inuit-Inupiaq families of polysynthetic languages spoken from Siberia to Greenland. The anthropologist Laura Martin has documented how the story grew like an urban legend, exaggerated with each retelling. In 1911 Boas casually mentioned that Eskimos used four unrelated words for snow. Whorf embellished the count to seven and implied that there were more. His article was widely reprinted, then cited in textbooks and popular books on language, which led to successively inflated estimates in other textbooks, articles, and newspaper columns of Amazing Facts.

The linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who popularized Martin's article in his essay "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," speculates about why the story got so out of control: "The alleged lexical extravagances of the Eskimos comports so well with the many other facets of their polysynthetic perversity: rubbing noses; lending their wives to strangers; eating raw seal blubber; throwing Grandma out to be eaten by polar bears." It is an ironic twist. Linguistic complexity came out of the Boas school, as part of a campaign to show that nonliterate cultures were as complex and sophisticated as European ones. But the supposedly mind-broadening anecdotes owe their appeal to a patronizing willingness to treat other psychologies as weird and exotic compared to our own. As Pullman notes,

Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmission

and elaboration of a false claim is that even if there *were* a

large number of words for snow in some Arctic language, this would

*not*, objectively speaking, be intellectually interesting; it

would be a most mundane and unremarkable fact. Horsebreeders have

various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have

names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of

mauve; printers have many different names for fonts (Carlson,

Garamond, Helvetica, Times Roman, and so on), naturally enough ...

Would anyone think of writing about printers the kind of slop we

find written about Eskimos in bad linguistics books? Take [the

following] random textbook ..., with its earnest assertion "It

is quite obvious that in the culture of the Eskimos ... snow is

of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that

correspond to one word and one thought in English into several

distinct classes ...," Imagine reading: "It is quite obvious that

in the culture of printers ... fonts are of great enough importance

to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word and

one thought among non-printers into several distinct classes ..."

Utterly boring, even if true. Only the link to those legendary,

promiscuous, blubber-gnawing hunters of the ice-packs could permit

something this trite to be presented to us for contemplation.

Ian "hoping that Pinker won't break my kneecaps: fair use, fair use!" York

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list