LINGUIST List 5.1401

Wed 07 Dec 1994

Sum: Snow

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. David Prager Branner, Pseudo-summary: Eskimo Snow
  2. John Nerbonne, Re: 5.1382 Words for snow

Message 1: Pseudo-summary: Eskimo Snow

Date: Sun, 4 Dec 1994 14:38:52 -Pseudo-summary: Eskimo Snow
From: David Prager Branner <>
Subject: Pseudo-summary: Eskimo Snow

Several weeks ago I posted a query to this list about the controversy over
Eskimo words for snow. The response gladdens me. There seem to be at
least three different matters involved:

 1) Folklorization: the American public at large seems to have
taken to the idea that there are a myriad Eskimo snow words.

 2) The number of real words that real Eskimo languages actually
have for different kinds of snow. In addition, the ways these languages
break up our concept "snow" into different concepts.

 3) More generally, the significance of different languages having
incompatible semantics.

The first issue is now widely known because of a popular article and book
by Geoffrey Pullum. Pullum writes to debunk the belief that Eskimo has
dozens or even hundreds of words for snow, and he documents examples in
the non-specialist press. But I have the feeling that his conclusion has
now found its way into the folklore of the very people who like to debunk
folklore: there is a growing belief that Eskimo *does not* have a
sophisticated snow vocabulary at all. That does not seem to be quite
right, either.

Discussion on the second issue seems to have ceased for now, although I
can't imagine we have seen all the data yet. Presumably there will be
articles on it in the scholarly press.

The third issue is a major theoretical shibboleth, of which the
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis represents one view - the so-called relativistic
view. People often talk about "proving" or "disproving" Sapir-Whorf,
which seems to me to overlook the two chief facts about the controversy.
One is that Sapir-Whorf is not really a hypothesis at all, but an
ideology, an axiom, a world view, a philosophical standpoint. We can no
more prove or disprove it than we can prove or disprove Muslim theology or
Polish drinking customs. It is because unprovable philosophical positions
are involved that there is such heated dispute about Sapir-Whorf.

The other thing is that if you put Sapir-Whorf into a form that makes it
honestly testable in some concrete way, you are usually dealing with
psychology, and psychology is far enough from linguistics that any results
are easy for linguistic ideology to ignore. Even though a number of
experiments have been done - tests involving conceptualization of color,
among others - it doesn't appear that many linguists on either side of the
debate have changed their views because of them.

In that form in which it is often articulated, Sapir-Whorf is obvious,
even trivial - anyone who has tried doing idiomatic translation between
two radically different languages knows that language positively rules the
way we think. This is too fully self-evident to justify listing examples
and testimonials.

Whorf himself insisted that he was not just talking about word-counting,
not merely about Eskimo and English having different vocabulary for snow.
His most elaborate examples of linguistic relativism involved Hopi
conceptions of time and space and enormous grammatical principles of
symphonic proportion. Writing about Basic English, he said:

 "We see here the error made by most people who attempt to deal
 with such social questions of language - they na"ively suppose
 that speech is nothing but a piling up of lexations, and that
 this is all one needs in order to do any and every kind of
 rational thinking; the far more important thought materials
 provided by structure and configurative rapport are beyond their
 horizons. ... For sound thinking in such fields we greatly need
 a competent world-survey of languages."[*]

This is why, of the three issues I have listed at the top of this message,
the second is the most important. If we don't continue to burrow deeply
into real languages, to do fieldwork, to try to learn to speak well
languages that are radically different from our own, then what are we left
with? Merely the repetition of old tales, merely philosophical dispute;
and these are not linguistics.

*** Note ***************************************************************

* "A Linguistic Consideration of Thinking in Primitive Communities", in
John B. Carrol, ed., _Language, Though, and Reality: Selected Writings of
Benjamin Lee Whorf_, (New York: The Technology Press of Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1956), pp. 65-86.
Quotation is from p. 83.


David Prager Branner, Yuen Ren Society
Asian L&L, DO-21, University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195 (
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Message 2: Re: 5.1382 Words for snow

Date: Mon, 5 Dec 1994 16:39:14 +Re: 5.1382 Words for snow
From: John Nerbonne <>
Subject: Re: 5.1382 Words for snow

`Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow' by Peter Hoeg, is a passable whodunit
featuring an alienated heroine of mixed Inuit/Danish parentage. It
was a bestseller in Copenhagen when I visited last summer, so I picked
it up (in English translation).

Miss Smilla is tipped off to foul play in the death of a young boy
because of her ability to read footprints in the snow, an ability
which she ultimately owes to her mother, an Inuit hunter. The trail
eventually leads back to Greenland where one certainly gets the
feeling that words distinguishing different kinds of snow and ice are
a more integral part of vernacular speech. Hoeg uses Inuit words,
with informal glosses, to convey a sense of specialized, but natural
and elaborate powers of discrimination, ultimately reflected in
lexical structure.

 Everyday, from the glacier above the cliffs, I had collected
 {\it kangirluarhuq}, big blocks of fresh-water ice, [...] (p.300)
 (page numbers in paper ed., Flamingo: London, 1992)

On the hand, it gets elaborate in English as well, when we see `grease
ice', `pancake ice', `frazil ice', `firn' and n{\'e}v{\'e} ({\'e} is
an `e' with an accent grave). And things occasionally seem to get
confused, at least in the English translation, where {\it qanik} is
glossed 'fine powder snow' (p.102), `snow flurries' (p.452) and `big
flakes' (p.480). (In this case the glosses, taken together, seem to
suggest that English speakers have a more discerning eye for snow!
But that isn't the effect as one reads.) The variety of glosses
suggest that the author (or translator) was consciously, but not
entirely consistently, using the different Inuit words to emphasize
the more differentiated perspective.

The popularity of Hoeg's book seems confirm that the link between
lexis and "normal" conceptualization--while so difficult to study--is
one of those areas where linguistics enjoys immediate broad interest
for its findings (but no, I'm not going to consider other explanations
for the book's popularity, even though I realize they could
exist--it's not my field). This may be another point which
popularizations could capitalize on--like child language, regional
accents, etc.

The book has several other interesting strands, which go beyond
the Linguist charter, however.

 --John Nerbonne
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