- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 23/01/2014
- coffe break linguistics
The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter is rather a superficial, self-consciously zeitgeist-y book, the literary equivalent of one of the less good HBC series.
He is on the right track about one thing though. One chapter starts: ‘Turns out there are only four eskimo words for snow’.
The famous story that Eskimos have a plethora of different words for snow has been exposed time and time again as, at best, extremely poor scholarship and, at worst, an implicitly racist assumption.
This myth has its roots in an assertion by anthropologist Franz Boas in his The Handbook of North American Indians, published in 1911:
‘…just as English uses derived terms for a variety of forms of water (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam) that might be formed by derivational morphology from a single root meaning ‘water’ in some other language, so Eskimo uses the apparently distinct roots aput ‘snow on the ground’, gana ‘falling snow’, piqsirpoq ‘drifting snow’, and qimuqsuq ‘a snow drift’. It was then taken up by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, as evidence for their theory of linguistic relativity. In a 1940 article on the subject, Whorf asserts that Eskimos have seven words for snow. From here, the urban myth snowballed (sorry) culminating in a New York Times editorial which asserted that ‘Benjamin Lee Whorf, the linguist, once reported on a tribe that distinguishes 100 types of snow – and has 100 synonyms (like tipsiq and tuva) to match.’
This process has been exhaustively documented. An excellent article from American Anthropologist, for example, traces every stage of its development. Stephen Pinker devotes a large section of his The Language Instinct to debunking the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis. Linguist David Wilton demolishes it in his Word Myths: Debunking Urban Legends (a summary of his argument is here). A recent debate on the Economist’s language blog, Johnson, found that a majority of linguistic academics felt that Sapir/Whorf, at least in its classical form, had been outdated and superseded.
In short, there can surely be no-one in the world of linguistics or languages in general who isn’t aware of the fact that the ‘Eskimos have X words for snow’ story is a pernicious falsehood (leaving aside, of course, the fact that there is no such language as ‘eskimo’). It is curious to find, therefore, that in one of its recent blog entries a leading American translation agency refers to it as if it were an accepted fact.