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“The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”; How many words represent “snow” in the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan langu

A closer look into the progression and technicality of the “words for snow” debate that has lasted a century.

Written by: Halle Elder

Over 100 years worth of debate has followed this question: How many words for snow are present in the “Eskimo” language? The answer to this is just about as complicated as the debate that has followed it since 1911.

One, four, 15, over 400? Opinions abound on the true number of words that this group has in their vocabulary for snow. The premise of this debate is that within the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan language family — often referred to as “Eskimo” language, which is a broad, outdated, and often derogatory term for a large culture group of the Arctic — there are a far greater number of words to express the idea of what english speakers would call “snow.” This debate has circulated not only in the linguistic/anthropological academic sphere, but in the public sphere as well. While linguists and anthropologists have published essays and speeches about this for years, news publications like The Washington Post have also claimed that there are in fact 50 words for snow.

The debate began in 1911 with Franz Boas, often referred to as “The Father of American Anthropology.” His work titled “Handbook of American Indian Languages” was the trigger for the debate on the snow vocabulary and stated that the “Eskimos” had four roots of snow. Over time, this concept expanded far past the original idea. Two textbooks from the 1950s, “The Silent Language” and “Words and Things, cemented the idea that there were several words for snow in Inuit-Yupik-Unangan language family. These textbooks led to a widespread fascination within the academic community at the time and the idea of the many terms for snow became a phenomenon in many different fields. As this idea became popularized, the general public also took notice. In the 1980s, news reports including an editorial in The New York Times took a stance on this debate, telling readers there were “one hundred types of snow,” and a local television channel out of Cleveland, WEWS, cited “two hundred words” when referring to Inuit terms for snow.

Just a little while after these public outlets picked up this idea, Laura Martin started the debate against this belief that there was a large vocabulary for snow words in Inuit-Yupik-Unangan language family. Martin was a professor of anthropology at Cleveland State University who published a report in 1986 within American Anthropologist titled "Eskimo Words for Snow: a Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example." In this report, Martin worked to show the misrepresentation of linguistic evidence that led to these exaggerated claims listed earlier. She also pointed out the ease at which these ideas spread due to the lack of both knowledge and desire to understand a culture different from our own.

Pullum was very clear on his view of this debate, but the question remains: is this really a hoax?

In 1991, linguist Geoffrey Pullum wrote a comical essay in response to Martin where he called out all those in the academic field for their misuse of information and lack of response to a belief that he deemed harmful to the credibility of linguists and anthropologists alike. His essay, entitled "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language" was the first academic work that sought out the advice of an expert on the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan languages. Pullum was very clear on his view of this debate, but the question remains: is this really a hoax?

Because of Pullum’s ardent response to this debate, the name “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” stuck in both the academic and public spheres for a long time. However, in today’s more empathetic approach, academics and a growing segment of the population refer to this group as the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan culture group, or “language family” when referring to languages. The peoples represented in these groups often prefer to be called by their own specific names and, for the most part, dislike the use of the term “Eskimo.” The fact that this collective group has, in the past, been called “Eskimos” also adds to the complexity of the debate. This is due to the diversity amongst the many languages and dialects associated with these cultures groups. It is hard to take inventory on a specific number of words when you are not looking at one particular language.

It is hard to take inventory on a specific number of words when you are not looking at one particular language.

For the purpose of this debate, however, the focus of the conversation is the entire Inuit-Yupik-Unangan language family. To truly understand the backbone of this debate, it is important to be aware that within the linguistic community, a “word” is not easily defined. There is constant back and forth as to what truly constitutes a word. Are “walk” and “walked” two separate words? Or are they two forms of the same word? The “-ed” that follows “walk” in this example is an affix (a separate piece that is added to a root word and changes the meaning). That means that both “walk” and ‘’-ed” are morphemes, the smallest meaningful unit of sound. A close look at specifics of a language like affixes is the sub-field of morphology.

Within morphology, languages are divided into subcategories. The Inuit-Yupik-Unangan language family is an example of a group of languages with polysynthetic morphology. Dr Andrej A. Kibrik, PhD, of The Moscow Institute of Linguistics explains that polysynthetic morphology “refers to the phenomenon of high average number of morphemes per word.” This means that one word, a root, can have many morphemes attached, creating a more complex meaning for the word.

Comparing these languages to each other is complex because, like snowflakes, no two languages are alike.

Martin, in her report mentioned earlier, wrote that “[t]he structure of [E]skimo grammar means that the number of ‘words’ for snow is literally incalculable, a conclusion that is inescapable for any other root as well.” This is how the debate on the number of words for snow came to fruition. Some argue that each of these morphologically changed words, although they share the same root word, each are their own word, which would mean there were an indefinite, and incalculable, number of words for snow within these morphological rules. This is where the numbers seem to become extreme — borderline hyperbolic — as high as 100, or even 400.

However, those like Martin and Pullum view this debate through the idea that the true number of words lies in the number of bound roots (those that cannot separate into smaller parts) and are the only words that should count. In this case, a large majority of the languages represented here would have a number of words for snow represented in the single digits, depending on the specific language and dialect.

Despite the length of time this debate has been going on, there really isn’t a definite answer to the question. There will likely always be a debate about what constitutes a word. Comparing these languages to each other is complex because, like snowflakes, no two languages are alike. They each have features that separate them for one another. This means that the metrics used to evaluate them have to be different as well. Perspective is an important aspect when studying people and their culture because sometimes, being on the outside really limits the ability to understand. In the future, we must hope that people from within these groups will step forward and give us closure on this debate. Until then, how many words exist for snow remains a mystery.



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