The claim that Eskimo languages have an unusually large number of words for snow is a widespread but controversial idea first based on the work by anthropologist Franz Boas and has become a cliché. It is often used to argue that language embodies different local concerns in different areas of the world or to defend the theory of linguistic relativity. Boas did not make quantitative claims but rather pointed out that the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word. A good deal of the ongoing debate thus depends on how one defines "word", and perhaps even "word root".
The first re-evaluation of the claim was by linguist Laura Martin in 1986, who traced the history of the claim and argued that its prevalence had diverted attention from serious research into linguistic relativity. A subsequent influential and humorous, and polemical, essay by Geoff Pullum repeated Martin's critique, calling the process by which the so-called "myth" was created the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax". Pullum argued that the fact that number of word roots for snow is similar in Eskimoan languages and English argues that there exists no difference in the breadth of their respective vocabularies to define snow. Other specialists in the matter of Eskimoan languages and their knowledge of snow and especially sea ice, argue against this notion and defend Boas' original fieldwork amongst the Inuit of Baffin Island.
Languages in the Inuit and Yupik language groups add suffixes to words to express the same concepts expressed in English and many other languages by means of compound words, phrases, and even entire sentences. One can create a practically unlimited number of new words in the Eskimoan languages on any topic, not just snow, and these same concepts can be expressed in other languages using combinations of words. In general and especially in this case, it is not necessarily meaningful to compare the number of words between languages that create words in different ways due to different grammatical structures.
Opponents of the "Hoax" theory have stated that Boas, who lived among Baffin islanders and learnt their language, did in fact take account of the polysynthetic nature of Inuit language and included "only words representing meaningful distinctions" in his account.
Studies of the Sami languages of Norway, Sweden and Finland, conclude that the languages have anywhere from 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 300 different words for types of snow, tracks in snow, and conditions of the use of snow.
To take again the example of English, we find that the idea of WATER is expressed in a great variety of forms: one term serves to express water as a LIQUID; another one, water in the form of a large expanse (LAKE); others, water as running in a large body or in a small body (RIVER and BROOK); still other terms express water in the form of RAIN, DEW, WAVE, and FOAM. It is perfectly conceivable that this variety of ideas, each of which is expressed by a single independent term in English, might be expressed in other languages by derivations from the same term. Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, qana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, piqsirpoq, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT.
The essential morphological question is why a language would say, for example, "lake", "river", and "brook" instead of something like "waterplace", "waterfast", and "waterslow". English has more than one snow-related word, but Boas's intent may have been to connect differences in culture with differences in language.
Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind general semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having several words for snow:
"We [English speakers] have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow hard packed like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven snow -- whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable...."
Later writers, prominently Roger Brown in his "Words and things" and Carol Eastman in her "Aspects of Language and Culture", inflated the figure in sensationalized stories: by 1978, the number quoted had reached fifty, and on February 9, 1984, an unsigned editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred. However, the linguist G. Pullum shows that Inuit and other related dialects do not possess an extraordinarily large number of terms for snow.
There is no one Eskimo language. A number of cultures are referred to as Eskimo, and a number of different languages are termed Eskimo–Aleut languages. These languages may have more or fewer words for "snow", or perhaps more importantly, more or fewer words that are commonly applied to snow, depending on which language is considered.
Three distinct word roots with the meaning "snow" are reconstructed for the Proto-Eskimo language *qaniɣ 'falling snow', *aniɣu 'fallen snow', and *apun 'snow on the ground'. These three stems are found in all Inuit languages and dialects—except for West Greenlandic, which lacks *aniɣu. The Alaskan and Siberian Yupik people (among others) however, are not Inuit peoples, nor are their languages Inuit or Inupiaq, but all are classifiable as Eskimos, lending further ambiguity to the "Eskimo Words for Snow" debate.
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