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words for snow
January 31, 2013 11:33 PM   Subscribe

Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide
posted by aniola (48 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Language Log is all-fucking-over this one.

'Words For Snow' watch
"Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo"
Snow Words In The Comics
Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back
The Mystery Of The Missing Misconception

LL calls them a form of snowclones. "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z."

And a nice takedown of the concept from Big Think: How many Words Do We have For Coffee?
That's what people actually mean when they repeat the story about Eskimo words for snow. The multiplicity of concrete terms "in Eskimo" displays its speakers' lack of the key feature of the civilized mind--the capacity to see things not as unique items but as tokens of a more general class. We can see that all kinds of snow--soft snow, wet snow, dry snow, poudreuse, melting snow, molten snow, slush, sleet, dirty gray snow, brown muddy snow, banks of snow heaped up by wind, snowbanks made by human hand, avalanches, and ski runs, to name but fourteen--are all instances of the same phenomenon, which we call "snow"; "Eskimos" see the varieties, not the class. (This isn't true of real Inuit people, only of the "Eskimos" who figure in the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.)

Translation between "civilized" and "primitive" languages distinguished in this way was clearly impossible. The solution was to teach colonial subjects a form of language that would enable them to acquire civilization, and the obvious tool to carry out the mission was the language of the imperial administrators themselves. In some cases, as in the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the impoverished resources of native languages were seen as such a threat to the spread of civilization that the languages and their written records had to be eradicated. But the destruction of the Maya codices wasn't solely an expression of naked power, religious fervor, and racism.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:53 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Laura Martin: "Eskimo Words For Snow": A Case Study In The Genesis And Decay Of An Anthropological Example (PDF)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:01 AM on February 1, 2013


The word for "yellow snow" has connotations which suggest "do not eat".
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:01 AM on February 1, 2013


Nobody ever comments on how many words for 'idiot' various languages have...
posted by tykky at 12:08 AM on February 1, 2013


I'm not going to be the first person to say that the term "eskimo" is now deeply offensive to the Inuit, the Yupik, and the Aleut, because most of us in the lower 48 don't know the difference. But I will make you make you watch The Savage Innocents, starring the Mighty Quinn.

Which is punishment enough.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:08 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


... soft snow, wet snow, dry snow, poudreuse, melting snow, molten snow, slush, sleet, dirty gray snow, brown muddy snow, banks of snow heaped up by wind, snowbanks made by human hand, avalanches, and ski runs ...

...the snows you remember from your childhood that were so much better than any of your modern snow...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:09 AM on February 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Nabokov famously said "Genius is an African who dreams up snow." But I think that the really great geniuses, the very rare and truly exceptional geniuses, are Africans who dream up at least a dozen words for snow.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:20 AM on February 1, 2013


Snow I can play in.

Snow I must travel through.

Snow I must remove from vehicles.

Snow I must shovel.

Snow which may melt and cause my home to be flooded...

It was nice and warm in Chicago 3 days ago, and now snow and 20 degrees of frost... this polar oscillator needs to be damped back down to normal.


If temperature < 32 : Degrees of frost == 32 - Temperature (F)
If temperature > 32 : Degrees of thaw == Temperature (F) - 32.
If temperature = 32 : Watch out for the ice!
posted by MikeWarot at 12:22 AM on February 1, 2013


counting Eskimo words for snow
gotta be quite a few, don'tcha know
some people only got just one
that's enough for them, then they're done
as for me? no use for the stuff...
makes life in the city real rough
turns black, or turns into slush
slows you down when you're in a rush
so i'm sorry if i seem kinda crass
but man, snow is just a pain in the ass
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:36 AM on February 1, 2013


I don't know if the snooty snots at Language Log have noticed this, because I sneer and snipe at the snide snarky way they've sniffed out the sniveling snore in this snario.

Now my nose hurts, and not just from the snuff.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:50 AM on February 1, 2013


People rightfully jump on examples of what Geoffrey Pullum called the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax; but this isn't one of those. Anthony Woodbury is in fact the expert that Pullum cites in his piece, in the bit subtitled "Yes, but how many really?" In other words this is not yet another example of misinformation; this is actual information.
posted by zompist at 12:55 AM on February 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Just listen to the Ms-information: all you need to know is that snow means snow.
posted by pracowity at 12:58 AM on February 1, 2013


You know, I heard that the eskimos had dozens of words for "snow", and I thought that was weird. I was thinking about it recently when I needed to eat. I went to get a burger. Driving to the fast-food place, I had to make a decision about what burger to order. I could get a single patty burger, or a single-patty burger with cheese, or a double burger, or a double burger with cheese, or a double burger with cheese and bacon, or I could add mushrooms, or a double whammy burger with cheese and bacon and mushrooms, or two all beef patties with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

I ordered a snow cone.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:05 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It’s not listed at their web store, but at one time the Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College sold a magnetic poetry set that supposedly included 50 different words for snow. I have no idea what language it’s in — Greenlandic? Kalaallisut? — but it features some of the ‘coolest’ words I’ve ever seen, including aninggaaq, aviluaqpalukhtsihuq, hikuphinaa, igluigaq, manirak, nilak, qainnguq, qirihug, sniskutsiri, and uquqtuq.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:09 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fuck the eskimos. I've been trying to learn the language of the people of Ko Lipe, an island off the Adang-Rawi Archipelago of the Andaman Sea, in the Satun Province of southwest Thailand.

The weather is always beautiful there. They have an abundance of fresh seafood and fruits. The people are stunningly good-looking.

In their local language, there are forty words for "good time". There are at least a dozen words for "hot chick" and twenty words for "party".

I just made that up. God, I wish it were true.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:25 AM on February 1, 2013


In Toronto, we have 100 words for "slush."
posted by bicyclefish at 1:29 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


... soft snow, wet snow, dry snow, poudreuse, melting snow, molten snow, slush, sleet, dirty gray snow, brown muddy snow, banks of snow heaped up by wind, snowbanks made by human hand, avalanches, and ski runs ...

I am waiting for the word for "snow that has just broken the water pitcher."
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:11 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Where are the factoids of yesteryear?
posted by Segundus at 3:34 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Polish have 50 words for vodka (see sections II and III), the Russians have more.
posted by hat_eater at 3:44 AM on February 1, 2013


The word "Eskimo" is not typically "deeply offensive" to Alaska Natives, who mostly use it as a common ethnonym for Iñupiaq, Yupi'k, and Aleutik. In fact, not all Alaskan "Eskimos" identify as "Inuit," FYI. All of the "real" ethnonyms mean some version of "the people" or "the real people," as do many of the world's indigenous ethnonyms, actually, and are applied in the modern sense as "tribal" names to cultures that weren't really organized as "tribes" commensurate with language-based groupings until the modern, post-contact era; the "village" or kinship-based hunting crew was the largest unit of political organization for most purposes before white men showed up, and now you have the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and many other pan-Inuit/transnational political affiliations.

Like "Indian," it depends on who says "Eskimo" to whom under what circumstances and in what tone of voice. But if you visit the villages of Native Alaska you will see people wearing "Eskimo Soul Power" t-shirts and rocking "Eskimo Pride" window decals and referring to themselves by what they would call their "Eskimo names." Like many derogatory ethnonyms, "Eskimo" (from French for "cannibal" or "raw meat eater," depending on which etymology you believe, and initially, as I understand it, applied to Inuits by Athabaskan tribes who had long been at war with Inuit tribes, and who absorbed a lot of French words due to interactions with trappers in the 18th c.) has been reclaimed as a symbol of pride.

So it's like saying "Queer" is deeply offensive. All depends who's saying it, and how.

"Eskimo" is more typically and likely offensive to many Canadian Inuit people, where the ethnonym has a different history of usage. Canadians prefer to use their tribal ethnonyms (Inuit, Inuk, Inuktitut, etc.). So do Alaskans under many political contexts, of course. But it's a modern affectation that makes language and "tribe" reducible to one another.

Don't even get me started on Greenlandic and Siberian issues. The safest thing is to say "Arctic indigenous peoples" if you mean to generalize about the languages (still widely referred to as "Eskimoan languages" by linguists, by the way, not considered offensive that I know of) or cultures of the circumpolar region.


Also, Geoff Pullum's debunking of all the "Eskimo words for snow" nonsense versions of Sapir/Whorf has long been considered the definitive takedown. No linguist of note has ever said the number of *words* a language has for something is at all indicative of any cognitive or cultural focus. That is an ignorant lay understanding of the Sapir/Whorf "hypothesis" (which is not one, really) for people who don't understand concepts like syntax and phonology. This argument is sooooo tired. Read John Lucy's *Grammatical Categories and Cognition* or something before revealing ignorant opinions, please. Eskimos who only speak English still know a lot more about winter weather than you do.


Back to retirement.
posted by spitbull at 5:01 AM on February 1, 2013 [36 favorites]


Since the author was able to translate all those words to English in a way that is comprehendable to English speakers who have experienced snow, does this mean we also have a multiplicity of words for snow?
posted by ardgedee at 5:15 AM on February 1, 2013


It means that the lexicon is the most expandable, least conservative, and most innovative area of language structure. Words are invented all the time, or borrowed. Sentence structure, not so much.
posted by spitbull at 5:20 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


1. Snow that belongs to the Emperor
2. Preserved snow
3. Snow that will blow on command
4. Fresh snow
5. Wet snow
6. Fabulous snow
7. Drifting snow
8. Snow that is included in this classification
9. Snow that whips about as if mad
10. Innumerable snow
11. Snow drawn with a very fine camel hair brush.
12. Et cetera
13. Snow that has just broken the flower vase
14. Snow that, at a distance, resembles flies
posted by ardgedee at 5:30 AM on February 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Looks like nobody linked to the MeTa about this thread yet. So, um, there it is.
posted by stebulus at 5:44 AM on February 1, 2013


Central Alaskan Yupik does not appear to have a word for snowblower/snowplow compressed snow. I spent a lot of my childhood kicking plow-formed snowbanks to produce blocks of snow for use as a fort building material. I don't think you could call one of my blocks an utvak because utvak are blocks carved from qetrar (a crusted surface layer). I suspect my blocks were so different from utvak in density that the same construction techniques could not be used.

The Inuit may not have enough words for snow to adequately describe my childhood snow fort building.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:48 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Eskimo" is more typically and likely offensive to many Canadian Inuit people

That's a very understated representation of their reactions, in my experience.
posted by bonehead at 5:53 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Let alone what the Dene or northern Cree would say, for that matter.
posted by bonehead at 5:55 AM on February 1, 2013


Dene and Northern Cree are not Inuit. Damn, people.

I've seen plenty of Canadian Inuit people dancing at events with "Eskimo" in the title. They understand context too. A white Canadian who calls an Inuktitut person an "Eskimo" in Winnipeg is making a racial slur. Don't overgeneralize. Language is complicated.

Ignorance about Native people is a Metafilter trademark.
posted by spitbull at 6:02 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Example of Inuit lexicon building: "skidoogaq" means to go snow machining, which is snowmobiling for you southern whale lovers.
posted by spitbull at 6:04 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"skidoogaq" means to go snow machining

Ha! I had a friend in college (a white friend) who was born and raised in northern New Hampshire; she had a lot of stories about her and her friends in high school going skidooing. Having more or less grown up as a flatlander in Boston, I didn't know for a long time that Ski-Doo is a brand of snowmobile - I think I thought it was a technical term for riding a snowmobile.
posted by rtha at 6:10 AM on February 1, 2013


The Polish have 50 words for vodka (see sections II and III)

But after the first 30 or so, they all tend to sound like mnyah...
posted by pracowity at 6:18 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a Maltese dog. I named her Pirta (word for snowstorm or blizzard). She lives up to her name.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:47 AM on February 1, 2013


the term "eskimo" is now deeply offensive . . .
The word "Eskimo" is not typically "deeply offensive" . . .


So the real story here is the Great English Language Offensive Vocabulary Hoax.

Just how many words do white American liberals find offensive (on behalf of others)? Minimal research restricted to Metafilter alone reveals hundreds of potential candidates.

Or is it all just a pirtuk-job?
 
posted by Herodios at 6:56 AM on February 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Just this week at The Week: How many words do Eskimos really have for snow? Depending on whom you ask, anywhere from 2 to 99
posted by QuakerMel at 7:27 AM on February 1, 2013


In Toronto, we have 100 words for "slush."

My favourite is the rare kind that just gets a slightly dirty and soft/crunchy and looks deliciously like cookie dough.
posted by beau jackson at 7:39 AM on February 1, 2013


In Toronto, we have 100 words for "slush."

Yep - most of them are 4 letters.
posted by randomnity at 7:58 AM on February 1, 2013


That's an incredibly short list of english-language snow lexemes. How about....

Corn
Sastrugi
Sugar
Slush
Boilerplate
Blower
Corduroy
Dust on crust
Softpack
Rime
Crud
Avalanche debris
Death cookies
Windslab
Surface hoar
Depth hoar
Spindrift
Suncups
Freshies
Graupel
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 8:40 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


spitbull, thanks for your fantastic comment(s) on this topic.
posted by Catchfire at 10:42 AM on February 1, 2013


It's perhaps a bit beside the point, but the Finnish language has 40-400 words for snow, depending on how strict your definitions of "snow" and "Finnish" are. I've come across a longer list before, but these two have 58 and 480 words each.
posted by eemeli at 11:49 AM on February 1, 2013


Drat, mis-edited my preceding comment, the second link out to point here: http://lumensanakirja.blogspot.fi/
posted by eemeli at 11:57 AM on February 1, 2013


Example of Inuit lexicon building: "skidoogaq" means to go snow machining, which is snowmobiling for you southern whale lovers.

I’ve seen “ski-doo” used in Yup’ik, too (e.g., “Ski-doo-kun pivkenateng iruteng aturluku.”). I remember it sparking an editorial style discussion on whether the brand name should be capitalized (Ski-Doo) or left lowercase as a generic term in Yup’ik.
posted by D.C. at 4:59 PM on February 1, 2013


In retrospect, wanting to talk about my childhood love of making blocks of snow really doesn't justify bouncing off this unpleasant cliche.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:54 PM on February 1, 2013


twoleftfeet: But I think that the really great geniuses, the very rare and truly exceptional geniuses, are Africans who dream up at least a dozen words for snow.

I give you An African in Greenland. It is the true story of a young African boy, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, who finds a book on Greenland in a bookstore in Togo and eventually makes his way from Africa to Upernavik in northern Greenland.
posted by monotreme at 7:30 PM on February 1, 2013


Also, Geoff Pullum's debunking of all the "Eskimo words for snow" nonsense versions of Sapir/Whorf has long been considered the definitive takedown. No linguist of note has ever said the number of *words* a language has for something is at all indicative of any cognitive or cultural focus. That is an ignorant lay understanding of the Sapir/Whorf "hypothesis" (which is not one, really) for people who don't understand concepts like syntax and phonology. This argument is sooooo tired. Read John Lucy's *Grammatical Categories and Cognition* or something before revealing ignorant opinions, please. Eskimos who only speak English still know a lot more about winter weather than you do.

Absolutely. It's also worthwhile for folks with an interest in this to actually read Whorf. His real concern with Eskimo words for snow had nothing to do with how many words there were for snow, except insofar as there were more than one and no one word that was used as the general term for the others. He explicitly contrasts this with Hopi, which has a general term for non-avian flying things that can be used for both aviators and dragonflies. He's trying to make a legitimate point that different languages lump and split differently, and the more interesting but more arguable point he'd also like to make is that, with respect to snow, we can't help lumping what speakers of Eskimo-Aleut languages can't help splitting.

He'd look at all these lists of words for snow and regard the fact that we agree they're all words for snow as a demonstration of his point about English speakers.

Pullum's piece (which can be forgiven as a sort of opinion column, basically riffing on Laura Martin's brief report to popularize it) totally glides over all this and concludes that there are at least two words for snow with different roots, and he mentions no cover term--so Whorf's key points are left standing or at least unaddressed.

Unfortunately, my understanding is that Whorf's wrong on a key detail he actually cares about. Almost any source on this topic will say that there's a word--apu, aput, aniu, apun, etc., depending on the dialect--that means "snow on the ground." Around 15 years ago, I mentioned the background on all this to a linguist from the area who said that the relevant word in the dialect he knew can also be used for snow in general, meaning Whorf is wrong and there is a general word for snow, which is what he believed not to be the case.

So ... the short of it is Whorf's wrong about Eskimo snow, but as of the last time I checked (a long time ago now), no one ever mentions the real reason why.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:23 PM on February 1, 2013


Larry Kaplan has a pretty good article about this on the Alaska Native Language Center's website. (Apologies if it's already been linked to.)
posted by nangar at 5:34 AM on February 2, 2013


Ok, here is something a little be Whorfish about English:

Snow is the frozen white stuff in the air; it remains snow even after it lands.

Now rain is the liquid stuff in the air, but once it lands, it's no longer rain, just water.
posted by willF at 8:51 AM on February 2, 2013


Snow turns into water too, when it melts.

And when it's in between, it's slush.
posted by nangar at 9:10 AM on February 2, 2013


If it's on the ocean, snow/water/ice configurations have hundreds of names (pdf). A few of those are Russian and other loan words, but still.
posted by bonehead at 7:32 PM on February 2, 2013


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