November 28, 2006

An early New Year's resolution

Note to self: when talking to the press, never mention Eskimos and their words for snow.

In an otherwise clear and fair article on sex differences in talkativeness ("Do women really talk more?", The Guardian, 11/27/2006), Stephen Moss manages to misrepresent both me and the poor old Inuit:

In the end, [Liberman] concluded that the figures were probably based on guesswork, likening the "fact" that women talk more than men to the often stated "fact" that the Inuit have 17 words for snow. Both, he said, were myths. The Inuit actually have only one word for snow; and research shows only minute differences between the amount that men and women talk. "Whatever the average female v male difference turns out to be," he concluded, "it will be small compared to the variation among women and among men; and there will also be big differences, for any given individual, from one social setting to another."

Here's how I used the Eskimo-snow-words analogy in the Boston Globe article from which Moss takes that concluding quote:

EXPERTS TELL US the Eskimos have about four dozen words for snow. Or is it 200? Or seven? Or maybe four? Here's a hint: It's roughly the same number as in English. And here's another hint: Most of the people who throw Eskimo snow-word numbers around don't know anything about it, and haven't bothered to look it up.

A summary of the truth about Inuit snow vocabulary can be found in an earlier Language Log post by Geoff Pullum, "Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification", 1/30/2004. I believe that Moss' reference to the number 17 comes indirectly from a Language Log post by Arnold Zwicky, "Only 17 words for snow", 1/9/2006, referring to a classic snowclone sighting in a book review by Christopher Buckley:

The Inuit language contains -- what? -- 17 different words for "snow"? The AD's must have twice that many for "vomit."

On the phone with Stephen Moss, I may well have mentioned "17" as one of the the smallest of the many invented-and-unsourced counts for Eskimo snow vocabulary; and I may have tried to explain how a single Inuit root can give rise to an indefinitely large number of derived words, given the polysynthetic nature of the language. But I certainly would not have said that "the Inuit actually have only one word for snow".

Frankly, I don't remember exactly how that part of the conversation went. But in the future, I've decided, I'm going to swear off the Eskimos completely when talking with representatives of the fourth estate. No good can possibly come of it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 28, 2006 09:10 AM