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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
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
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
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
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
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....
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]
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
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
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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