Re: Debate opens anew on language and its effect on cognition

From: Wade T.Smith (
Date: Wed Feb 20 2002 - 21:31:57 GMT

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    On Wednesday, February 20, 2002, at 03:49 , Kenneth Van Oost wrote:

    > In our case, noone will give the same importance to the word ' snow '
    > like the Inuit do.

    Cecil Adams offers his own comment on this lively little arctic

    Dear Cecil:

    In view of the blizzards we frequently have here in the Great White
    Midwest, how about a vocabulary lesson? I've heard the Eskimos have nine
    words for snow. What are they? --Karen, Chicago

    Dear Karen:

    I've got a lot more than nine words for snow, and I don't even need to
    resort to Eskimo. This is because I have a powerful descriptive

    However, if we must confine ourselves to Eskimo talk, I can still come
    up with quite a few terms, as long as you will let me throw in some
    words for ice too: kaniktshaq, snow; qanik, falling snow; anijo, snow on
    the ground; hiko (tsiko in some dialects), ice; tsikut, large broken up
    masses of ice; hikuliaq, thin ice; quahak, new ice without snow; kanut,
    new ice with snow; pugtaq, drift ice; peqalujaq, old ice; manelaq, pack
    ice; ivuneq, high pack ice; maneraq, smooth ice; akuvijarjuak, thin ice
    on the sea; kuhugaq, icicle; nilak, fresh water ice; and tugartaq, firm
    winter ice.

    If we wish to include peripheral items we may speak of iglo, snow house
    (igloo); haviujaq, snow knife; puatlrit, snow shovel; uvkuag, block of
    snow for closing the door of a snow hut. I imagine after-dinner chats in
    Eskimoland must get a bit monotonous after a while, considering the
    restricted range of subject matter. Fortunately, they have about 20
    words for trout to liven things up with.

    Most of the preceding words are from the dialect of the Umingmaktormiut,
    a tribe living in the eastern part of arctic America. Since the
    necessary diacritical marks are not available, the spellings are a
    little on the approximate side. However, Eskimos are not such hot
    spellers anyway.

    The problem with trying to pin down exactly how many Eskimo words there
    for snow and/or ice--or for anything, for that matter-- is that Eskimo
    is what is called a "polysynthetic" language, which means you sort of
    make up words as you go along, by connecting various particles to your
    basic root word. For example, we may add the suffix -tluk, bad, to
    kaniktshaq, snow, and come up with kaniktshartluk, bad snow.

    By means of this system we may manufacture words that would fracture the
    jaw of an elk. To illustrate I offer the word
    takusariartorumagaluarnerpa, a chewy mouthful signifying: "Do you think
    he really intends to go look after it?" It takes nerve to flog your way
    through a word of this magnitude. That's why Eskimos are so
    laconic--they are conserving their strength for their next foray into
    their godawful grammar.

    In my spare time I have been attempting to construct an Eskimo sentence
    in my basement, such as will be suitable for the season. I have not get
    it perfected yet, but it is coming along pretty well, and with a little
    work it might pass for the genuine article. So far I have: kaniktshaq
    moritlkatsio atsuniartoq.

    When completed, this sentence will proclaim: "Look at all this freaking
    snow." At present it means: "Observe the snow. It fornicates." This is
    not poetic, but it is serviceable, and I intend to employ it at the next
    opportunity. Anyone who feels it would alleviate his or her tension is
    invited to do likewise. Should it be felt that this is too burdensome a
    load of verbiage to be hauling around all the time, one may avail
    oneself of the timeless Eskimo interjection anaq, shit. This is
    appropriate to a wide variety of situations.


    And it goes on....

    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).
    --Stephanie Short, Lake Placid, New York

    [Pullum, Geoffrey K. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other
    Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. With a Foreword by James D.
    McCawley. x, 236 p., 1 figure, 2 tables. 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 . . . --Marie G., via the Internet

    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
    cannot 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

    Turning to Stephanie's point, I did not 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 is not 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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