Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Dec 21, 2010 by

While doing my post-Hannukkah/pre-Christmas grocery shopping, I was exposed to a ubiquitous holiday jingle galore on the supermarket radio. You know, the usual kind: “Jingle bells”, “Feliz Navidad” (a nod to the ever-growing Spanish-speaking population of our state) and of course “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow”… and my mind drifted again to the issue of “epistemological populism” and more specifically to its best example in linguistics — the so-called “great Eskimo vocabulary hoax”. No quasi-linguistic idea is more entrenched in the popular consciousness than the idea that “the Eskimo language has four/seven/four dozen/one hundred/several hundreds (pick your favorite number) of words for ‘snow'”. This idea is so popular, it must be true, right?

Nothing is closer to the truth. As Geoffrey Pullum discusses in detail in his excellent essay and in later commentaries, there are many good reasons to be suspicious of this idea.

First, there is no single Eskimo language. Rather it is a family of languages and a dialect continuum, including Sirenik (in Russia), varieties of Yupik (in Russian and Alaska), Inupiaq (in Alaska), Inuktitut (in Canada) and Greenlandic Inuit. The not-so-frequently-cited examples from some Eskimo varieties do add up, but it is just as silly to say that “Eskimo has many words for ‘snow'” as it is to say that Romance languages have many words for ‘forgetting’ (dimenticare, oublier, olvidar) — so, presumably, the Romance speaking peoples are quite absent-minded!

Second, what counts as a word for ‘snow’? The various sources that cite any examples of the Eskimo snow vocabulary at all typically cite words that mean ‘partly watery snow’, ‘snow on the ground’, ‘snow blown by the wind’ etc. But English — the supposedly much poorer language when it comes to the snow vocabulary — has a rich array of such snow words as well: slush, sleet, slop, blizzard, powder, crust, flurry, drift, firn, avalanche, etc. If you are an avid skier (which I am certainly not), you might be able to think of some more specialized snow terminology.

Which brings me to the third point: even if it were true that Eskimo languages (note the plural!) had more words for ‘snow’ than English, what would be so surprising and mention-worthy in that? In the words of Geoffrey Pullum,

“Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of mauve; printers have many different names for different fonts…”

…so why shouldn’t the Eskimo have many words for ‘snow’? Actually, Pullum himself suggest an answer to that:

“Snow in the traditional Eskimo hunter’s life must be a kind of constantly assumed background, like sand on the beach. And even beach bums have only one word for sand.”

In a similar vein, we are all surrounded by air, but do we have many words for various types of air: fresh air, polluted air, moist air, dry air etc.? The answer is no. Not even asthma sufferers have a richer vocabulary for ‘air’!

And finally, there is one aspect of Eskimo languages that is related to the idea that they have many words for ‘snow’, but it’s rarely (if ever) brought up in popular mentions. Eskimo languages are polysynthetic and allows noun incorporation. Here’s what I mean: imagine if English allowed you to say John snow-shoveled, car-drove and then blog-wrote. In fact, this sort of construction is very, very limited in English (apart from John baby-sat and bar-tended, I can’t think of any examples, and those are really examples of backformation rather than true noun incorporation).

Eskimo languages — and other polysynthetic languages, such as Mohawk — allow exactly that: the noun object becomes part of the verb word. Given this, many more words for ‘snow’ can be created in Eskimo languages, which means that in fact the number of Eskimo words for ‘snow’ is approximately as large as the number of English sentences that can contain the word snow, that is potentially infinite!

So all of this makes me wonder whether the Eskimos would translate the song in the title of this posting as “Let it snow-1, let it snow-2, let it snow-3” (using three different polysynthetic words from their insanely rich snow vocabulary, or would they stick with the iconic representation of continuous, monotonous snowfall by using the same ‘snow word’ three times over? After all in English we don’t sing “Let it snow, let it sleet, let it slop”, do we? Even if sometimes I am tempted to break up the monotony of the supermarket radio muzak by singing it exactly that way!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone! See you in 2011!

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