Monday, 26 January 2015

Aput, Qana, Piqsirpoq, Qimuqsuq: Inuit Snow Terms

Hawaiians having 65 words for describing fishing nets, 108 for sweet potatoes, 42 for sugarcane, 47 for bananas, Baniwa having 29 words for ants, Scots having a plethora of words for bad weather, Somali for camels, Greeks for face slapping, and Inuit for snow (via) are examples that are to illustrate the meaning of "cultural vocabularies". The example of Inuit languages having a great many words for "snow" is one that is rather familiar to the general public and has reached the status of "a commonplace of linguistics and anthropology". It is probably the most often used example to illustrate how much vocabulary and cultural or physical environment are linked to each other. This popular story "has entered the realm of popular mythology, having turned into a scholarly equivalent of the urban legend about the poodle in the microwave: everyone is familiar with the sotry but the exact details are a little sketchy."

The example was firstly mentioned by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911. Since then it has bee repeated, mutated and transformed a great many times without reference to the primary sources of information. In 1940, the linguist Benjamin Whorf brought up "the Inuit example" and has since then been closely associated with it. In the 1950s, the anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall mentioned the example again. These researchers and others not mentioned here quoted "the Inuit example" in different ways ranging from Inuit having "three" to "five" or just "many" words for snow. Inuit is not a single language and due to the polysythetic morphology of Inuit languages the number of words is infinite. In addition, the question arises what exactly a word is.

In 1991, Geoffrey Pullum published "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" and "the Inuit example" no longer escaped scrutiny. In an entertaining manner, he poked "fun at the scholars who have slavishly repeated the claim promulgated by other scholars with no reference to primary data". He calls the example a hoax and says that Inuit do not have many different words for snow: "Anyone who insists on simply checking their primary sources will find that they are quite unable to document the alleged facts about snow vocabulary (but nobody ever checks, because the truth might not be what the reading public wants to hear.)" Pullum consulted a specialist and was told that there were between one to two dozen words for snow, depending on the criteria which to include (e.g. many refer to "ice") (Kaplan, 2013).

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- Kaplan, L. (2003). Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What Does It Mean? In: Building Capacity in Arctic Societies: Dynamics and shifting perspectives. Proceedings from the 2nd IPSSAS Seminar. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada: May 26-June 6, 2003, ed. by François Trudel. Montreal: CIÉRA -- Faculté des sciences sociales Université Laval. via
- The Project Gutenberg e-Book of "The Central Eskimo" by Franz Boas via
- images via