The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary
(ESV) debate concerns the numbers of words Eskimo languages have for
snow and ice in their various forms and situations, as compared with
other languages. The debate was set off a decade ago by an essay, "The
Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," by Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor
of linguistics at the University of California Santa Cruz (Pullum 1989,
1990, 1991). Pullum there ridiculed the idea that the Eskimos had significantly
more words for snow than did English, for example. He was motivated
to do so, he explained, partly by a wish to correct a specific popular
misconception, but much more by a wish to use this canard as a cautionary
example of human gullibility, shoddy scholarship, and even of latent
attracted a good deal of attention, and has even, according to his friend
and ally Geoffrey Nunberg, gone a long way toward correcting the specific
error in question, if not the underlying faults in human nature or society
that Pullum tells us are his real targets. After reviewing the history
of Pullum's attempt at straightening us all out on the ESV question,
he says, "But has the world paid any heed? Amazingly, it has"
(Nunberg 1997), and reports that many stories in the press and periodicals
have picked up Pullum's thesis and joined him in laughing at or scolding
the sillies or miscreants who still languish in a state of error. It's
not clear whether these journalistic sallies really represent a paying
of heed by the world, as opposed to the momentary exploitation of a
very minor intellectual scandal by journalists always desperate for
something to talk about, but Pullum's piece does seem to have had an
unusually successful career as such things go. It is taken as authoritative,
for example, by Steven Pinker (Pinker 1994), who says, "no discussion
of language and thought would be complete without the Great Eskimo Vocabulary
Hoax," and goes on to summarize, with glee, Pullum's supposed final
settling of the matter.
To the best
of my knowledge, my own essay on the subject (Halpern 2000) remains
the only attempt to critically analyze Pullum's thesis. Even that essay,
though, as its name indicates, did not take that thesis as its main
target, but simply used what I regard as Pullum's failings to illustrate
and introduce my own concerns about linguistics and usage, just as Pullum
had used the ESV issue to lead into the larger questions of concern
to him. And both he and I have been at some pains to emphasize that
the ESV, as such, is of only minor and passing interest to us, compared
with the larger social and intellectual issues that we see involved.
But while all parties seem to agree on the relative unimportance of
the purely linguistic ESV questions, those questions keep coming up,
and keep generating heat. This note is an attempt to clear away some
confusions and fallacies--not all Pullum's--that continue to impede
the settling of this troublesome if incidental question. I have not
forced myself to stay strictly within the linguistic arena while discussing
the ESV--I'm not sure it's possible to say much about it without glancing
at broader issues of scholarly practice and social outlook--but I have
tried to keep myself from roaming beyond the purely linguistic any further
than is necessary to present a coherent argument.
that the Eskimos have words for many more varieties and conditions of
snow and ice than do the languages of the temperate zone; others say
they have no more. (Note that "more words for snow and ice"
does not mean mere synonyms for snow and ice, as a few have
supposed.) The evidence usually offered consists of lexical counts,
with each side in the debate claiming authority for its own list of
such words gathered from native informants, or from dictionaries compiled
earlier from such interviews. But besides all the difficulties regularly
associated with the compilation of word lists for a language that until
recently was purely a spoken language, and whose present-day written
form is largely the work of non-natives, there is in this case a special
problem: these lexical counts seldom if ever distinguish between words
in common use and those never used by, or even known to, ordinary users
of the language in question. This failure vitiates virtually all attempts
made so far to settle the matter.
who reject the notion that Eskimos have significantly richer vocabularies,
for example, often compile lists of English snow-related words in order
to show that there are roughly as many such words in English as in Yup'ik
or Iñupiaq; what they fail to note is that most of those English
words are far from being in common use among English-speaking people.
Most English speakers live their entire lives without once using such
words as rime and glare (in their snow- or ice-related senses); these
words are in the English language, for the majority of speakers, only
in the sense that they're in English-language dictionaries. They are
not, for most speakers of English, even in their passive vocabularies--most
have never seen or heard such words used, and could not define them.
I think that a new term is required for words that are part of the language
only in so tenuous a sense, and I propose metic for that role--a
term used to describe resident aliens in ancient Athens, who were allowed
to live in the city, but severely restricted in their legal rights,
and sharply distinguished from Athenian citizens1.
It is particularly important to make such a distinction when considering
English, because that language is so acquisitive, so prehensile, so
ready to assimilate words from any source--the metic contributions to
English from the languages of the Indian sub-continent alone have been
collected in a book that runs to just short of 1,000 pages (Yule 1886)--that
otherwise, we'll soon have to conclude that English subsumes every known
language, including the Eskimo languages. That would settle the debate
about whether Eskimo languages have more snow-related words than English,
but not in a useful way.
the many words that appear on Eskimo-language lists of snow and ice
terms are very much native words, and in common use among all speakers
of the language in question. The Public Information Officer for the
North Slope Borough, Barrow, Alaska, has said, "
have more than 30 words for snow, and more than 70 words for ice. In
the Arctic, the specific conditions of snow and ice are critical to
hunting and survival
" (Patkotak 1994). And again, "Ice
is very important here because of whaling and hunting done on the pack
ice. Each word denotes ice in a very specific place or condition. Use
the wrong word when you go hunting on the ice and you are apt never
to be seen again" (Patkotak 1996). If we exclude the metics, and
compare a list of just those snow-related words that are in common use
among speakers of English with corresponding lists from Eskimo languages,
it is obvious that the Eskimo snow vocabulary is many times greater
than the English (and, presumably, other temperate-zone languages),
just as one would expect.
The suggestion has
been made that the very term word is inapplicable in discussing
a polysynthetic language like the various Eskimo languages; these, it
is claimed, are largely made up of free-floating segments that can be
combined freely at need, and are thus quite unlike English, which for
the most part is a corpus of fixed terms that have to be used as given,
or not at all. This claim is a red herring. Whether the snow-related
terms of the Eskimo languages are words in the same sense as the words
of English is not to the point; what matters is that those Eskimo-language
features--call them fixed locutions or fixed constructs,
if you like, to avoid the controversial word word--are recognized
and commonly used features of their languages. What the debate is about
is whether there are significantly more fixed constructs or fixed locutions
for snow-related phenomena in the Eskimo languages than there are in
the languages of the temperate and equatorial zones.
debate gets down to specifics, the comparison is usually between one
of the Eskimo languages and English, but of course this is far from
satisfactory: first, the Eskimo languages should be compared to all
non-Eskimo languages to eliminate the possibility that, for example,
Swahili might contain just as many snow-related terms; second, if just
one language is to be chosen to represent the non-Eskimo languages,
English is a bad choice, because of that imperialistic tendency mentioned
any urgent warning that the Eskimo languages can convey could also be
conveyed in English--but it would take in general many more English
words than Eskimo-language constructs; it would take the English-language
speaker much longer to frame his utterance, since he would have to improvise;
and he could not be certain that his improvised utterance would be understood
in time--or ever--by his audience. In contrast, the Eskimo wishing to
convey the same warning would be able to reach for a shorter, ready-made
expression that was immediately comprehensible to his countrymen. And
the Eskimos' need for such a tool is readily understandable, I think;
it's rather more important for an Eskimo to be able to say quickly "That
ice you're standing on is the kind that splits suddenly when the tide
turns, as it's doing right now" than it is for the typical Alabaman.
As has often
been noted, when excited or in trouble, we fall back on clichés--and
when it comes to trouble on ice, the Eskimos have many clichés,
and we do not.
heard claim is that only those words or phrases of which all parts are
uniquely snow-related are to count when we're enumerating snow-related
terms. According to this notion, powder as a designator of
a type of snow is not to count, since it's a term originating outside
the snow context, and used only figuratively of snow. That this proposed
rule is wholly arbitrary and invalid may be seen by trying to apply
it to words on other topics: would we deny that strawberry roan,
for example, is a horse-breeding term because strawberry originates,
and is used, in other contexts? Isn't donkey engine a mechanical
term, even though a donkey is an animal, not a machine?
for this kind of investigation is the number of distinctions the linguistic
community under examination makes, within the subject area, for whose
expression they have standard, recognized constructs--constructs, that
is, that can be used without improvisation, and with assurance that
any member of that community will understand them clearly and immediately.
For these purposes there is no reason to distinguish between simple
words and more elaborate verbal constructs, or between those constructs
of which every part is peculiar to its subject area and those that draw
on the vocabulary of other subject areas for analogies and metaphors.
red herring is the claim that one's position on the Eskimo snow-vocabulary
question is in effect one's position on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see
"Sapir-Whorf" in the Reference list) about the role that language
has in shaping and constraining its speakers' worldview. But this claim
simply has no merit; one can hold any imaginable position on the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis, or even never have heard of that hypothesis, regardless
of the number of snow-related constructs one finds in Eskimo speakers'
live vocabularies. The one point of interest offered by this particular
red herring is that it may explain the heat and rancor that has attended
many debates on the snow-vocabulary question. If one imagines that the
attribution to Eskimos of a large snow-related vocabulary necessarily,
or even probably, entails supposing that Eskimos are limited to a very
narrow, primitive worldview, and hence may be treated as our inferiors,
even as less than human, than one might well strongly oppose such an
attribution, and even fling wild charges of racism at those who find
that Eskimos do have such a vocabulary. But why one should imagine any
such thing is a mystery. In the minds of most observers, it is perfectly
natural, and fully human, to possess and use a large vocabulary for
the most prominent features in one's daily life--so much so that we
would be likely to doubt the humanity of any group that did not do so.
A point that
is raised often enough in debates about the ESV to need putting to rest
is that it is insulting to indigenous Arctic and Sub-Arctic peoples
to call them Eskimos. This notion seems to rest--insofar as
it can be said to rest on any clearly expressed reasons--on the facts
or supposed facts that, first, the peoples concerned do not call themselves
by that name, and second, the name is a Cree Indian word meaning 'eater
of raw meat,' or 'eater of fish,' or even 'eater of rotten fish,' and
hence an insult.
to the first point is that while the Eskimos do not, in their own language,
call themselves by that name, that is because Eskimo is an
English word, and they are speaking a different language. The Eskimos,
more tolerant than their self-appointed champions, not only do not require
English-speakers to use Eskimo names, but often call themselves Eskimos
when speaking English. The principle that one must call each people
by the name they call themselves in their own language is in effect
the claim that there must be no English-language name for any foreign
group. The right principle is that stated by C. S. Lewis when rebuked
for using 'Scotch' to describe those Britons who live north of the Tweed;
he simply pointed out that he was talking English, not Scots.
to the second is that no insult is intended, nor felt by the Eskimos,
when they are called Eskimo (a term whose origin is unclear, but which
there is no reason to regard as derogatory--see the discussion by Damas
in the Introduction to the volume cited in the reference list under
Woodbury). And how, one wonders, do the politically correct explain
their rejection of a term coined by the Cree, another indigenous people--is
that not insulting to the Cree? And is it not insulting to the Eskimos
to assume that a bunch of Cheechakos can detect insult where the Eskimos
themselves cannot, and to assume that the Eskimos must be protected
as if they were children or mentally deficient? Hard is the path of
the politically correct--and may it remain so.
(2000), “Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage,” The
Vocabula Review , ( http://www.vocabula.com/VRSept00Halpern.htm
) (Written in 1996, partially published in the Atlantic Monthly,
March 1997, pp. 19-22.)
(1997), “Snowblind,” ( www.parc.xerox.com/snow.html
) (also in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 13, 1.)
Patkotak, Elise Sereni
(1994), letter to the editor, New York (June 13, 1994),
page 8. (reproduced in Halpern 2000)
, private communication, March 26, 1996.
(1994), The Language Instinct . New York: Morrow.
(1989), “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” Natural Language and
Linguistic Theory 7 , 2; pp. 275-281.
“The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” Lingua Franca , pp. 28-29.
A two-page summary of the essay, in the premier issue of the periodical.
------------------ (1991), The
Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax . U. of Chicago Press. Contains the
fullest and most authoritative version of the essay.
: go to CCMS
- Communication studies, cultural studies, media studies infobase by
Woodbury, Anthony C.
(1984), “Eskimo and Aleut Languages,” in David Damas (ed.), Handbook
of North American Indians V: Arctic . Washington, D.C., Smithsonian
Yule, Henry & A. C.
Burnell (1886), Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary
. London, 1886; reprinted Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1996.
owe the term to D. W. Brogan, the best foreign observer of America
since Tocqueville. I had thought that it was already in use in the
form Métis, meaning one of mixed Eskimo-European descent,
and so stated in earlier versions of this paper, until I was disabused
of this false notion by Mr P. D. Petersen, who kindly explained that metic is
from the Greek metaoikos, and Métis from Latin misticius,
an altogether different word.