A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are there nine Eskimo words for snow (revisited)?

February 2, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Just read the column on your Web site about the nine Eskimo words for snow, in which you encourage the idea that Eskimos have an unusually large number of terms for snow and ice. You'd better read the title essay in Geoffrey Pullum's book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991).

Dear Cecil:

I myself am a Koniag Eskimo and was inflamed to see your ignorant, rude, racist, and idiotic statements about a different race than yours posted on a Web site where people ask questions and want simply the answers, not to read a bunch of redneck crap from some ignorant person who doesn't take the time …

Cecil replies:

Ah, jeez, Marie. Does this mean our date is off?

I confess that in my column on Eskimo words for snow I was — I know this will shatter the image many of you have of me — screwing around. I did not, for example, have a factual basis for the ignorant, rude, etc., statement that "Eskimos are not such hot spellers." On the evidence of Marie's letter their spelling is OK; it's their English composition skills that blow. (Different from. "Simply want answers," not "want simply the answers." Delete "to read." Divide run-on sentence.) Also, I can't honestly state that Eskimos are laconic because "they're conserving their strength for their next foray into their godawful grammar." Apparently they can run off at the mouth just like anybody else.

Turning to Stephanie's point, I didn't squarely address the question of whether the Eskimo/Inuit have an unusually large number of terms for snow or whether this tells us anything useful about the Eskimo worldview, the interdependence of language and cognition, or anything else. Geoffrey Pullum rectifies this omission in the essay cited, claiming that "the truth is that the Eskimos do not have lots of different words for snow" (his emphasis). In the course of this he lumps your columnist in with such tawdry enterprises as the New York Times for having collectively perpetuated popular ignorance on the topic.

Geoff and I need to have a little talk about this. Granted, the Times, under the incredible deadline pressure that editorial writers face, once declared that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, which isn't true in any meaningful sense. I, on the other hand, cited a couple dozen terms for snow, ice, and related subjects that I found in an Eskimo dictionary. I also pointed out that Eskimo languages are "polysynthetic," meaning one constructs new words on the fly by adding morphemes (of which there are hundreds) to a root; this makes it impossible to state definitively how many Eskimo words there are for anything. Geoff, having asked around, avows that there are maybe a dozen independent Eskimo roots for snow, which to my mind qualifies as "lots" and is certainly comparable to the numbers I was talking about in my column. (On further investigation, it turns out there are at least 15 roots; see list.) So my question to Geoff is: Where do you figure I screwed up?

Enough of this palaver. The facts appear to be as follows:

(1) Eskimo languages do indeed have a lot of words for snow.

(2) So does English. Consider snow, slush, sleet, hail, powder, hard pack, blizzard, flurries, flake, dusting, crust, avalanche, drift, frost, and iceberg, to name but a few. Admittedly I've included words that refer to ice rather than snow in the usual sense, but that's just my point. Once we realize that the thing being described is frozen water, it's obvious that English has terms out the wazoo.

(3) The allegedly large number of words Eskimos have for snow is widely adduced as evidence for what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the gist of which is that language reflects a culture's preoccupations and in so doing imposes certain patterns of thought on individual members of that culture.

(4) Whatever may be said for the S-W hypothesis in general, the notion that it's supported by Eskimo words for snow is bunk.

(5) Any group of people working in a particular field or sharing a certain set of circumstances will develop a specialized vocabulary for describing their everyday experiences, and no doubt this tells us something about the shared mental constructs by which they comprehend the world. But you know what (and here I concur with Geoffrey Pullum)?

(6) Big freaking deal.

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