The Eskimo have been said to have as many as 400 words for snow. In 2013, an article in the Washington Post reduced the number to 50, prompting some to blame it on global warming. This is one of those stories that linguist delight in telling, but is the large number of Eskimo words for snow a fact or a hoax? Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics and dean of graduate studies and research at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that it is the latter. Pullum is the author of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. Apparently, his book has spurred a debate among linguists about the subject.
But, who are these people some of us call Eskimo? They are the indigenous inhabitants of the northern circumpolar region, from eastern Siberia (Russia), across Alaska (United States), Canada, and Greenland. The two main groups known as Eskimo are: the Inuit of Canada, Northern Alaska (sub-group Inupiat), and Greenland, and the Yupik of eastern Siberia and Alaska. The Yupik comprise speakers of four distinct Yupik languages: one used in the Russian Far East and the others among people of Western Alaska, Southcentral Alaska and along the Gulf of Alaska coast. A third northern group, the Aleut, is closely related to the Eskimo. They share a relatively recent, common (Paleo-Eskim) ancestor, and a language group (Eskimo-Aleut).
The term Eskimo is commonly used in Alaska to refer to the world’s Inuit and Yupik people, it is considered derogatory name in many other places, because it was given by non-Inuit people and, it was said to mean “eater of raw meat”. However, linguists now believe that Eskimo was derived from an Ojibwa word meaning “to net snowshoes”. (Note: The Ojibwa, also called Chippewa, self-name Anishinaabe, are an Algonquian-speaking North American Indian tribe who lived in what are now Ontario and Manitoba, Canada, and Minnesota and North Dakota, U.S., from Lake Huron westward onto the Plains.) Inuit, among other designations, is used instead of Eskimo mostly in eastern Canada, but the people of Greenland prefer “Greenlanders” or “Kalaallit” in their language. Most Alaskans accept Eskimo because Inuit refers to the Inupiat of northern Alaska, the Inuit of Canada and the Kalaallit of Greenland and it is not a word in the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.
As you can see, we really do not know the origin of the word Eskimo, therefore, there is no reason to suppose that it is derogatory, particularly since it is not taken as such by the Alaskan natives to whom it is applied.
The origin of the story originated with Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer and insurance company employee, who moonlighted as an anthropologist lecturer at an Ivy League university. Notwithstanding his amateur status, Whorf has made important contributions to the linguistic field. For example, he deciphered the Mayan hieroglyphs, giving access to classical Mayan, a previously inaccessible language, but according to Professor Pullum, his contribution to Eskimo lexicography is shoddy. Pullum regrets that Laura Martin’s 1989 American Anthropologist report exposing the inaccuracy of this story was virtually ignored by the linguistic community. According to Pullum, the story about the Eskimo words for sow is a a hoax. It has no basis on fact.
In an effort to demonstrate that other languages have multiple words for snow, Professor Anthony C. Woodbury of the University of Texas at Austin compiled a list of what he considers to be English-language terms for snow. The list includes avalanche, dusting, snow bank, snow cornice, snow fort, snow house, snow man and snow-mixed-with-rain? [sic]. However, one might argue that avalanche and dusting have no connection with snow or ice at all and the various phrases that begin with snow are not terms for types of snow, but for types of banks, cornices, forts, and so on.
On the other side of this debate, Frank Boas, author of The Handbook of North American Indians (1911) explains that, unlike English, the Eskimo use distinct words for snow, such as aput (snow on the ground), fana (falling snow), piqsirpoq (drifting snow) and qimuqsuq (snow drift). As you can see, each word represents a concept of snow that requires multiple English words to convey.
It would appear that this popular story will continue to awe audiences everywhere. Whether is a hoax or a myth, may lie less in counting words than in deciding what will be counted and how, and that is beyond the scope of this newsletter.