Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Inuit don't actually have hundreds of words for snow

The latest Grammar Girl blog post looks at a commonly-encountered urban myth, namely that the Inuit - or, as they are often referred to, even these days, the "Eskimos" - have 50 (or 100, or even 400!) different words for snow, and so, by implication, can conceive of snow in ways that we English speakers cannot even begin to imagine.
It is a fun conceit, and one that is reflected in a bunch of similar claims, such as that Australians have many words for sand, a particular Philippino tribe has many words for rice, etc, etc, claims that are now bundled under the label "snowclones". But, unfortunately, like those other claims, and like similar popular assertions, such as the one that the Hopi natives of southwestern American have no word for the concept of "time", it's just not true.
The idea seems to have been started by the popular by the American amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf back in the 1940s, but his claim was only that the "Eskimos" had several words for snow. (Mr. Whorf was also responsible for the erroneous Hopi time claim). The contention began to be repeated and exaggerated in a bunch of popular anthropology books in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the assertion, and many other similar ones that have arisen, have been comprehensively debunked by several modern linguists, but the compelling and vaguely romantic idea nevertheless persists in the popular imagination.
Part of the reason the myth has arisen is the fact that there is no single language used among the native people of the Arctic. There are two main languages, Inuit and Yupik, but those languages also have multiple dialects. Thus, several different words exist for most things, not just snow, in much the same way as there are many different (and often linguistically related) words for "king", "wood", etc, in the various languages of Europe, or the native peoples of the Amazon.
Another part of the reason for the confusion is the agglutinative nature of the Inuit language - like German, Japanese, Esperanto and many other languages - so that quite complex phrases in English may be rendered in a single word in Inuit. Thus, the West Greenlandic word for sea ice, siku, is incorporated into their word for pack ice (sikursuit), new ice (sikuliaq), thin ice (sikuaq), melting ice (sikurluk), etc. So, the same concepts exist in English, but require more than one word to express them, simply due to the characteristics of the language itself.
Add to that the fact that the inuit and Yupik languages are highly inflectional (in English, for example, "looked", "looking", "looks", etc, are all inflections of the base word "look"). One linguist estimates that a noun in Yupik can have up to 280 inflections, but they are not really different words.
So, you can easily see how the idea might have developed, even if Mr. Whorf himself did not make such wild claims. But, however much you might like it to be true, the native people of the Arctic don't actually have many more words for snow than do other languages. Sorry.

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