January 04, 2007

The snow words myth: progress at last

It is not all gloom as regards the media's treatment of language. There are happy stories too. Ash Asudeh just sent me a little "whaddya know" piece headed "Snow Speak" that he scanned from an airline magazine (Holland Herald, published by KLM). It had an illustrative drawing of an Arctic hunter, and it was about snow words. Yawn, I thought. But this one was a real surprise. They had actually been talking to a linguist, it seems, or had at least once met one in a bar somewhere, and although what they said was not accurate, it was a lot closer to being accurate than the familiar nonsense that has been repeated so many times:

The idea that Inuit people have many more words for snow than English speakers is a myth. Most Inuit languages are "polysynthetic". Whereas English uses separate words in the sentence "the snow under the tree" an Inuit person would express this in one word. In fact, English has more words for different types of snow than most Inuit languages.

This still hasn't got everything right. An unsympathetic judgment would be that it's stuffed full of mistakes: (1) the language family is generally called Eskimo or Eskimoan, because it includes the Yup'ik languages of Siberia and Alaska as well as the Inuit languages from the northeastern half of Alaska across Canada to Greenland; (2) all eight Eskimoan languages are polysynthetic to a high degree, not just most; (3) the distinction between bases and derived words isn't even hinted at here, but it's crucial; (4) "the snow under the tree" is not a sentence, it's a noun phrase; (5) I don't think the definite articles in the latter phrase would typically come across in the meaning of a derived word, so the example is a bad one; (6) the point is not about what an Inuit person would do, it's about the structural resources an Eskimo language provides; (7) it's not clear that English has more words (who's counting?), it's just that it appears to be roughly comparable by most sensible ways of counting distinct genuinely snow-related lexeme roots. The point is that we want to count one for each family of derived words like snow, snowy, snowing, snowlike, snowstorm, etc.; if you don't do that, then Eskimoan languages not only have millions of words for snow, they have millions of words for fish, millions of words for coffee, millions of words for absolutely anything, which makes the whole discussion irrelevant to anything about snow.

So I would have written the paragraph more like this:

The idea that Eskimos have many more words for snow than English speakers is a myth. All eight Eskimo languages have extraordinarily rich possibilities for deriving new words on the fly from established bases. So where English uses separate words to make up descriptive phrases like "early snow falling in autumn" or "snow with a herring-scale pattern etched into it by rainfall", Eskimo languages have an astonishing propensity for being able to express such concepts (about anything, not just snow) with a single derived word. To the extent that counting basic snow words makes any real sense (it is often difficult to decide whether a word really names a snow phenomenon), Eskimo languages do not appear to have more than English has (think of snow, slush, sleet, blizzard, drift, white-out, flurry, powder, dusting, and so on).

That would be yet closer to accuracy, even further away from ever being a plausible nominee for a Becky award. It's a bit longer than the original, but not that long. I don't think it overstates anything (there is a great more to say about the different layers of lexicalization in Eskimo derived words, but I'm not trying to do a full essay here). You may think it couldn't possibly be that a language could have words with such complex meaning, but let me just add this. I once browsed for a while in the wonderful Comparative Eskimo Dictionary and came to the conclusion that it looked as if you should be able to make up a single word that would mean "They were wandering about gathering up lots of stuff that smelled like dead fish." I sent an email to Jerry Sadock, who is a serious Eskimologist, asking whether this was true. Back came an email. It contained one (West Greenlandic Inuit) word.

For a couple of discussions of some real facts about Eskimoan snow vocabularies, see the two references given in this post by Bill Poser (which is about New York English rather than Eskimoan, but as you'll see, the theme is there). See also the collection of links given in this post by Mark Liberman if the subject interests you at all.

Anyway, let me end by stressing the positive side again: even the inadequate paragraph that KLM's magazine printed, with all its minor errors, is vastly closer to being true and reliable information than most of what was ever said about Eskimo languages in all the magazines and newspapers and books of the 20th century. Things are improving! Congratulations to Holland Herald for taking a step out of the snowdrift of myth and legend.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 4, 2007 12:38 PM