LINGUIST List 5.1401

Wed 07 Dec 1994

Sum: Snow

Editor for this issue: <>


  • David Prager Branner, Pseudo-summary: Eskimo Snow
  • 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 (

    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