Alaska Native Language Center | Snow -
Alaska Native Language Center | Snow
"The claim that Eskimo[1] languages have numerous words for "snow" has often been repeated and has become familiar to the general public in addition to linguists and anthropologists. The point to be made seems to be that "Eskimo" has some indeterminate number of words -- and the numbers given vary in different sources -- for a substance that is described in English and most non-Eskimo languages with a much smaller number of words. The existence of snow terms in Eskimo is most often used to show the relationship between the vocabulary of a language and the physical environment in which that language is used. For some reason it is always the Eskimo example that is brought out to illustrate this situation and not the fact that painters may use a wide array of color terms and carpenters know a lot of words pertaining to nails and other hardware. The Eskimo example has entered the realm of popular mythology, having turned into a scholarly equivalent of the urban legend about the poodle in the microwave: everyone is familiar with the story but the exact details are a little sketchy." - Maitani from Bookmarklet
"Two publications have refocused attention on the snow example. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 1991 published The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax but first, in 1986, Laura Martin, Professor of Anthropology at Cleveland State University, published a report in the American Anthropologist titled "Eskimo Words for Snow: a Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example." This interesting article follows the example from the original claim made by Boas in the introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages, published in 1911, through its many mutations and transmogrifications as it has been repeated and often amplified in articles and books and all without reference to primary sources of information. The numerous published dictionaries of Eskimo languages were not consulted, and neither were linguists or Inuit. A brief summation of the history of the snow example based on Martin's article follows, showing how the example progressed and took on a life of its own, divorced from any empirical data to support it." - Maitani
"When Boas in 1911 first presented his Eskimo snow terms, it was not in the section of the introduction called "Influence of Environment on Language" as one might suppose but rather in a less enlightening section called "Limitation on the Number of Phonetic Groups Expressing Ideas." The point of the discussion is to show that languages classify things very differently, "that the groups of ideas expressed by specific phonetic groups show very material differences in different languages, and do not conform by any means to the same principles of classification." Boas gives the example of English, where water in various states is denoted by independent, unrelated words, such as lake, river, brook, rain, dew, etc., although another language might conceivably express them by means of derivations from one term. Boas next gives an example comparing snow terms in "Eskimo" to English with its water terms. He gives four "words," aput 'snow on the ground,' qana 'falling snow,' piqsirpoq 'drifting snow,' and qimuqsuq 'snowdrift.' These forms appear to come from a variety of Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, but the source is not given.[2] Boas goes on to say that the same language has a variety of terms for seals." - Maitani