Sunday, November 23, 2008

How many Eskimo words are there for snow?

I remember once at a party at Scott Hamilton's having quite an acrimonious exchange with one of my fellow-guests over the number of Eskimo words for snow. For years I'd been reading in virtually every book of pop-etymology I picked up that the Eskimos so lived and breathed snow, that they had 16 different words for it - or 32 different words for it - or 44 different words for it ("falling snow" - "sitting snow" - "impacted snow" - "wet-bad-driving-snow" - "good-dry-building-snow" etc. etc. etc.) Just like we (or some of us) talk about "earth" and "soil" and "loam" and "dirt" and "dust" and "mud" (or even "tilth"), I suppose.

I'd been enlarging on my theory that this was complete bullshit to the assembled company, mainly because each book gave a different number for these alleged words for snow, but also because none of them supplied any source for this information beyond some other piece of journalism by one of their bonehead colleagues. What is an Eskimo, anyway? Nowadays people tend to use the word "Inuit" instead. But of course this piece of facile PC'ness had been added to various versions of the fact (or "factoid").

Scott's friend erupted at this deluge of smartypants scepticism, and claimed that he personally had visited a museum somewhere in the north of Finland (I think it was) - in the Lapp country, at any rate - and had seen inscribed on the wall of the museum a huge plethora of terms which did indeed represent the full range of Eskimo (or Inuit) terms for snow. There it was, in black & white, carved in stone, in the sacred museum of time!

Collapse of stout party. I can't say I was totally convinced by his asseverations, but I was impressed by his vehemence, and he'd certainly succeeded in trumping my own point - which was mainly that people repeat anecdotes rather than checking them, and that they have a tendency to embed themselves in our cultural bedrock like mini-urban legends.

Well, the other day I picked up a very interesting book (at a library sale, for $1), entitled Faking Literature (2001), by no less eminent a personage than Ken Ruthven (late of Canterbury University, author of the controversial Feminist Literary Criticism: An Introduction (1984) among many other weighty tomes). And what did I find on p.89?

Another ineradicable misconception provides the title of Geoffrey K. Pullum's The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991), a book which popularised Laura Martin's exposure of the myth that the Inuit and Yukik languages (homogenised as "Eskimo") exhibit scores of words for different types of snow, when in fact 'Eskimo has about as much differentiation as English does for "snow" at the monolexemic level: snow and flake'.

I couldn't help but feel rather vindicated when I saw that (incidentally, isn't that term "monolexemic" great? I guess it just means on the level of single words ...) But I can't claim that it came as any real surprise.

Further investigation online revealed the following, from a site called Language Log:

The story about Inuit (or Inuktitut, or Yup'ik, or more generally, Eskimo) words for snow is completely wrong. People say that speakers of these languages have 23, or 42, or 50, or 100 words for snow - the numbers often seem to have been picked at random. The spread of the myth was tracked in a paper by Laura Martin (American Anthropologist 88 (1986), 418-423), and publicized more widely by a later humorous embroidering of the theme by G. K. Pullum (reprinted as chapter 19 of his 1991 book of essays The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). But the Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn't that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning "slush", a root meaning "blizzard", a root meaning "drift", and a few others - very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.

So maybe there's a bit more to the misunderstanding than a simple untruth (I still wonder what actually was written up on that museum wall in Lappland. Maybe it's the Lapps who have lots and lots of words for snow. Or for "reindeer," for that matter. Or maybe that friend of Scott's was just totally full of shit ...) The story clearly doesn't mean what most people want it to, though: i.e. that we have lots of words for the things that preoccupy us most. It was, after all, the historian Gibbon who commented (long before Borges popularised the idea in his classic essay "The Argentinean Writer and Tradition" ) that the Koran, the sacred book of the Arabs, contains no references to their principal means of transportation, camels.

The large number of Eskimo words for snow is, in short, not a fact but a factoid. And what exactly is a "factoid"? Ruthven has some light to shed on that subject also. The word can apparently be traced back to Norman Mailer's 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn: "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or a newspaper." But what began as a word for pieces of pseudo-information about the alleged habits or tastes of celebrities has now had to be extended over the whole field of pseudo-information - the stock-in-trade of Monty Python's immortal Hackenthorpe Book of Lies:
Contains over 60 million untrue facts and figures - Amaze your friends! - Did you know ... that El Greco's real name was E.L. Grecott? ... that Chuck Berry wrote many of Shakespeare's plays? ... that the Everly Brothers turned down a knighthood?
  • Did you know that Moslems are forbidden to eat glass?
  • Did you know that the oldest rock in the world is the famous Hackenthorpe Rock, in North Ealing, which is 2 trillion years old?
  • Did you know that from the top of the Prudential Assurance Building in Bromley you can see 8 continents?
  • Did you know that the highest point in the world is only 8 foot?
  • Did you know that Milton was a woman?

These are just a few of the totally inaccurate facts in THE HACKENTHORPE BOOK OF LIES - all of them guaranteed false! ...

Well, of course that last one, about Milton being a woman is quite correct. Robert Graves even wrote a novel about his/her cross-dressing ways, Wife to Mr Milton (1943), so it must be true.

A propos of Robert Graves, though, he's also the source for one of the most fascinating examples of the evolution from fact to factoid in his WW1 memoir Goodbye to All That (1929):

I was outraged to read of the Germans' cynical violation of Belgian neutrality. Though I discounted perhaps twenty per cent of the atrocity details as wartime exaggeration, that was not, of course. sufficient. Recently I saw the following contemporary newspaper cuttings put in chronological sequence:

When the fall of Antwerp became known, the church bells were rung [i.e. at Cologne and elsewhere in Germany]. - Kölnische Zeitung.

According to the Kölnische Zeitung, the clergy of Antwerp were compelled to ring the church bells when the fortress was taken. - Le Matin.

According to what The Times has heard from Cologne, via Paris, the unfortunate Belgian priests who refused to ring the church bells when Antwerp was taken, have been sentenced to hard labour. ­- Corriere della Sera.

According to information which has reached the Corriere della Sera from Cologne, via London, it is confirmed that the barbaric conquerors of Antwerp punished the unfortunate Belgian priests for their heroic refusal to ring the church bells by hanging them as living clappers to the bells with their heads down. - Le Matin.
[Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That. 1929. Rev. ed. 1957. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973): 60-61].

Isn't that great? “Living clappers to the bells"! Especially as Le Matin is actually repeating a distorted version of a rumour it's already passed on once -- kind of like chewing your food twice, before and after digestion.

It's funny, yes, but it’s also kind of pernicious. German soldiers who actually had committed brutal war atrocities in Belgium got off scott-free for the most part because so much media bias and irresponsible rumour-mongering had contaminated the public record.

That’s also (presumably) why Holocaust historians, having watched the ”poor little Belgium" saga unfold (not to mention the collective amnesia which swallowed up the massacre of the Armenians during the same war, for that matter), resolved to be so minutely circumstantial in their documentation of Nazi atrocities.

They were right to be careful. About as many people would believe in the Holocaust as currently believe that NASA landed on the Moon if they hadn’t been so scrupulous.

So what am I suggesting in this somewhat rambling post? I'd like to suggest that a little more attention be paid to the hierarchy of genres: specifically, to the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

Can anyone think of an occasion where (so-called) faction has actually succeeded in accomplishing anything worthwhile? It’s hard to think of any. "A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent" said Blake. A lie (or "fiction") that's mixed in with the truth is even more pernicious, I'd have thought. It's hard enough to get reliable information on any subject without idiots adding in their own fibs or repeating each other's.

Mind you, I have no problem at all with avowed fiction - in any and all of its guises. I'm happy to read historical novels, watch dramatisations, revel in anachronisms, muddy the waters myself with any alleged "fact" (or page reference) in any of my own poems or stories.

I don't have any quarrel with C. K. Stead's editing a selection from Katherine Mansfield's letters and journals, and then following it up with a novel called Mansfield in which he "imaginatively reconstructs" the milieu of Kathy and D. H. Lawrence and all their freaked-out friends. All power to him. That seems a perfectly straightforward procedure to me.

I do have a problem with Lloyd Jones publishing a "travel book" (Biografi, 1993) about Albania which records a fictional quest for a (non-existent) Dentist who was supposed to have spent the latter part of his life masquerading as the Dictator Enver Hoxha's double. Especially when the Albanian part of the book is doubled by an account of an (equally fictional) New Zealand short-wave radio enthusiast called Cliff Dalziel who used to tune in constantly to Radio Tirana.

The furore over this little venture into the postmodern clearly soured him on such exercises, though (see further Chris Else's excellent article on the controversy - 'Fact or Fiction: The Curious Case of Biografi,' in Landfall 189 (1995): 38-65.) When he turned his attentions to the troubled island of Bougainville a few years later (Mr Pip, 2006), it was obvious that he wasn't going to allow any troublesome genre questions to rear their heads this time.

Now, I happen to find the teenage Bougainvillean girl who narrates Mr Pip about as convincing as a member of the Black-and-White Minstrels doing a James Brown impersonation. But that's just a matter of taste. Clearly other people like the book, or it wouldn't have been nominated for so many awards. Personally, I find Biografi a much more beguiling and skilful piece of writing.

But, as Chris Else so cogently points out, if you allow yourself to fictionalise every detail of your allegedly "factual" account so relentlessly as Jones does, you end up serving up a kind of second-hand version of Kafka's Castle instead of conveying anything idiosyncratic about Albania itself. Else had the street-cred to say so, too, as he'd lived and worked there himself for a couple of years in the seventies. It's arrogant and shallow, basically. Readers may not readily detect the difference, but somebody will.

So next time you find yourself spouting off about how many Eskimo words there are for snow, or telling the story about that friend-of-a-friend of yours who got served up a Kentucky Fried Rat, just think for a moment about where you got the information from, and whether it's really worth repeating until you know it's true.

I know it might leave most of us with nothing much to say at the next party we get invited to, but maybe that wouldn't be such a tragedy, either.


Gabriel said...

Apparently it snowed in Auckland once and people skied down Queen Street!

Kathmeista said...

Ah hah! So they don't have that many words for snow! Amazing how the factoid mill (a worse version of the gossip mill it seems!) can weave such convincing tapestries that barely have a thread of truth in them that we all take and proudly hang on our walls. Very interesting indeed!

harvey molloy said...

Awesome post. I've often heard but never believed the 'untold words for snow' story. And it's great to learn the origins of 'factoid.' Rock on, Jack.

Richard Taylor said...

I could be totally wrong - but I think that ... all people on this earth - no matter what language they speak - use - more or less - the same number words or concepts - and basically the structures of languages are really all the same.

(Just as all computer "languages" have ultimately to be reduced to machine code so human languages have to be - in kind of parallel way - processed...)

This is my own view (although I also heard this from a person who was fluent in quite a few languages including Chinese) - I have no real skill with any language apart from English. I have tried to learn quite a few with varying (not much) success...

This is because (as far as I know) the human brain works the same wherever one is or whatever ones culture.

Of course there are differences - the Eskimo environment is unique - or it was previous to European contact.

The implication is that there is something very different about Eskimos (or Inuit or whoever). Even possibly that they are inferior.

Of course mostly asserting the many snow words theory is just harmless but it does or could have some problematic implications.

BUT - I could be completely wrong about it - perhaps every one's brains are very very different and the Inuits etc have millions of words for snow...

On a similar experience - I once got very irate (I wouldn't bother nowadays) when someone repeated what he had heard - that humans were slowly getting bigger - as if we would eventually all become giants! But this is biologically -and in fact physically impossible -but I was pretty drunk and the more I tried to oppose this view the more angry I got and the less able I was to explain why it was impossible. [I'd reached the point that I started to think maybe I am wrong - but I wouldn't admit it to myself or them!!]

So in fact in most cases it is wisest just to agree!! As mostly one is arguing about a lot of trivia, and often with strangers !

But the reason (for the height limit) is to do with basic forces - the exponential weight increases of hydraulics with height, the shift of the centre of gravity, and so on ...

These days I just agree with people if I think they are wrong and they insist they are right. Especially on "factual " issues - the last occasion was someone saying that resistance (ohmic) decreased with temp. which is wrong but I just stopped arguing - as I suddenly thought I myself might in fact be wrong... and if someone at a gathering asserts something like that - well - who cares about it really!

Language is perhaps worth few a more shots though! I have to say I am not sure about the snow thing but Jack's point sounds basically correct.

We had a bloody cold wet winter here but it didn't snow - I have only seen snow twice in my life... and it certainly never snows in Auckland!

Olivia Macassey said...


Recently I got around to reading Peter Høeg's Smilla's Feeling for Snow (second trans.) which in turn had me thinking about Mr Pip and what I think of as a kind of ventriloquist tendency through which white western males speak through (or "as") indigenous female characters.

Smilla of course attracts all kinds of commentary about words for snow and the wonderful "authenticity" of the novel... the "interesting facts" readers picked up through the fiction, and so forth.

In many people's conception, authenticity itself, like truth, is conveyed through genre rather than source - factoids after all use the formal properties of facts: statistics, dates etc.

I think though that while you say they are dangerous they are also obviously serving some kind of purpose. They circulate like currency; they bind like glue. Some people are often so attached to ideas, like the snow-words one, that in casual conversation they simply disregard anything to the contrary. The Inuit, or the Sami, or Pasifik peoples for that matter are placeholders for particular things in the western imaginary (or imaginaries, if you prefer). I think not only could one ask "how do I actually know this?" but, whether it is true or not, "what purposes might this serve"?

Jack Ross said...

Well, I certainly see what you're saying, Liv. The factoid becomes a kind of cultural fact, illuminating lines of pressure etc. (conspiracy theories, born-again indigenism etc.) I guess I'd still stress the need to beware of them, though, given the fact that analysis of cultural idees recues tends, in my experience, to confirm the ideas and overview one came in with -- Marxism, Aestheticism, Feminism -- rather than testing them in any externally verifiable way. We're left with a ubiquity of falsehoods in any cultural paradigm, but I guess I'm still more impressed by Newton's laws of motion (culturally contingent though they certainly are) than his speculations on the size of the tenth horn of the Beast in Revelation. I think people are right to demote the latter set of speculations (though it would be unwise to avoid discussing them altogether).

Hope that makes some sense -- it's early morning here and the birds are singing outside.

Olivia Macassey said...

Yeah, I don't disagree with you... just thinking along the lines of bewaring the discourses which underpin the factoids. Including your list of Isms - and certainly the other things which feed into them ... I'm not at all sure that people are aware of everything they "came in with", not by a long chalk.

[Your profession of disinterest re: the horn size of the Beast is not at all convincing, by the way.] ;-)

Jack Ross said...

Busted! Yeah, well, I suppose I have to admit the truth in that. I should be more interested in laws of motion, but actually my little ears prick up the moment the signs of the Zodiac swim into sight ...