A note on the Eskimo snow thing

I did a satisfying little bibliography crawl recently to track down some references on the wrong-but-ubiquitous idea that ‘Eskimo have 100/354/1,000 words for snow’ which I thought I’d share here for people’s convenience. Most of the work done on this topic comes from Laura Martin’s “‘Eskimo Words for Snow’: A Case Study in the Growth and Decay of an Anthropological Example”:http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7294%28198606%292%3A88%3A2%3C418%3A%22WFSAC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A (aka American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 88, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 418-423). The more accessible and well-known publication is Geoffrey Pullum’s “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”:http://www.springerlink.com/content/k0h25l886617384u/?p=cbd1112e3d4a4a848723659c1522cf4a&pi=1 (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7, 275-281). It’s been published in several other places (you can check out his “publications list”:http://people.ucsc.edu/~pullum/publications.html). The way that some universities are today, though, you may have an easier time getting a PDF off of Springer than tracking “the eponymous paperback”:http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0226685349&id=jp5JCaP_xpIC&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&ots=50UblijtvM&dq=geoffrey+pullum&sig=Tf-xoYyRCVhcG7BvdzGAC-nIbm8&hl=en. Finally, there is also a brief comment on “Snowing Canonical Texts”:http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7294%28198706%292%3A89%3A2%3C443%3ASCT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-P by Stephen O. Murray (American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Jun., 1987), pp. 443-444) which comments on Martin’s use of Boas’s original brief mention of snow. Anyway I thought it would be useful to have all this digested here.

The short version — for people who didn’t get the memo — is that the Eskimo do not have 100/354/1,000 words for snow.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “A note on the Eskimo snow thing

  1. Um they’re called Inuit, more generally.

    They’re alive and well, and often fluent in more than one language. Ask them how many words for snow they have.

    Anthropology, eh?

  2. There is an important sense in which the take-home message at the end of Rex’s original post is right on. But there is another sense in which I think it reinforces one of the basic confusions driving the Eskimo Number of Words for Snow debate.

    As discussed in the Wikipedia article Eli mentions, in polysynthetic languages like those of the Eskimo family (to which, yes, the Inuit sub-family belongs), words show considerably more internal structure than words in a relatively isolating language like English. Words in such languages show a combinatorial power more reminiscent of English *sentences* than of English words. Consequently, one can build huge numbers of snow-related words, just like the following Yup’ik Eskimo word is one of a huge number of reindeer-related words: tuntussuqatarniksaitengquggtuq `He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer’. ( tuntu- is the part that means `reindeer’.)

    To say that “the Eskimo do not have 100/354/1,000 words for snow” obscures the fact that Eskimo words are a quite different kind of beast than English ones, and that this important fact renders moot the entire issue of counting Eskimo words for snow (or reindeer).

    I do not doubt that this is clear to *you*, Rex, but I felt that the “short version” could be misleading to some.

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