all the wrong answers are interesting
February 11, 2019 6:49 PM   Subscribe

“Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow” is an amazing phrase, because every word in it is wrong. Aaron Bady on what he thought would be "a few days’ research and a quick little explainer essay" and turned into half a year of research and an unexpected appreciation. "What’s fascinating to me about actually reading Whorf’s work—after working my way debunkers who gesture at his ignorance as disqualifying—is how simple the point he was trying to make actually was: that ignorance is, itself, a pathway towards new knowledge."
posted by spamandkimchi (76 comments total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
 
I now have way more than fifty words for snow but most of them are swear words.
posted by loquacious at 7:09 PM on February 11 [67 favorites]


This is a nice & thoughtful essay. Thanks.
posted by feckless at 7:11 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


But as it happens, Whorf wasn’t telling as much of an isolated story about Eskimos as it seems when you excerpt it. The quote story about Eskimos is preceded and followed by similar stories about the Hopi people and the Aztecs: the former call all flying things by variations on the same word, Whorf says ... At the same time, “did you know that the Hopi only have one word for flying things?” never became a thing either ...
Oof. I admire Aaron Bady's attempt here to read the original source, but he too misses the point of what Whorf was saying, because he didn't say the Hopi only have one word for flying things. What Whorf said was that the Hopi have one term that can be used for birds in general and one term that can be used for both aviators and flying insects but not birds. What he means to highlight is that different languages group things into different categories, and as a result, another language's categorizations often seem strange. Thus, non-avian flying thing is supposedly to us as strange a category as the general term snow would be for someone who categorizes what we call snow as different things when it's in the air vs. when it's on the ground. Whorf happens to be wrong about the latter example, because (I've been told) aput, apun, apu are each in different dialects generic terms for snow, regardless of whether it could also be called qanik, etc. But the point of the example is non-controversial--I encourage anyone interested to read it for themselves here on p. 216 of Language, Thought, and Reality. Whorf was writing for The Technology Review, a pop science magazine published by the MIT alumni association, so it's pretty readable.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:54 PM on February 11 [40 favorites]


because every word in it is wrong

Interested to find out how "for" is wrong.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:58 PM on February 11 [17 favorites]


I've heard quite a few people say words against snow, if that helps. Most of whom, by the way, I met after they moved south to get away from the stuff.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:06 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]


I now have way more than fifty words for snow but most of them are swear words.
posted by loquacious

EPONYSTERICAL
posted by twoplussix at 8:36 PM on February 11 [17 favorites]


Smilla's senses recognized 23 types of snow.
posted by bz at 8:55 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


[A few comments deleted; I think the originating comment was a dad joke that wasn't really landing, but in any case let's skip it at this point.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:08 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Interested to find out how "for" is wrong.

I was thinking that surely nothing could be wrong with the word 'words.'
posted by LeLiLo at 9:10 PM on February 11


Another take on the topic: 50 Words for Snow, by Kate Bush
posted by Jefffurry at 9:31 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


“Words” is indeed problematic in that Inuit languages (“Eskimoan”) are agglutinative. “Words” and “sentences” (and “verbs”) are not as easily distinguished as in familiar Indo-European languages.

I won’t go into deep details but as someone who hangs out with Inuits and is years into learning an Inuit language and still flummoxed most of the time, it’s much more interesting to me to note that my friends say one complex sentence-word for the motion of snow that is set into motion by wind, and thus indefinitely in a state of persistent motion, as opposed to another construction to indicate the presence of an agent that has recently disturbed the snow, like a human in a truck up ahead, and whose departure will discontinue the disturbance.

Yeah. Whorf barely scratched the surface of linguistic diversity and its relation to thought. And that is in part because he wasn’t always clear (and many of his popular intepreters even less so) on the distinction between lexicalized and grammaticized categories.

Words can be changed and added and lost in a generation. Obligatory grammatical structures are unconscious and durable and much less subject to reflexive awareness of their “grooves of expression,” in Sapir’s famous phrasing.

No one uses much of Shakespeare’s lexicon anymore. But we pretty much have the same tense and number ageeement rules as he did in modern English.

By far my favorite book on the subject remains Paul Friedrich’s *The Language Parallax,* even if it’s 35 years old.
posted by spitbull at 9:40 PM on February 11 [68 favorites]


Also of course obligatory, Geoffrey Pullum’s witty classic *The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.*
posted by spitbull at 9:42 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]


Incidentally, “Grooves of Expression” is the name of my new funk band. Our music is great, but our lyrics...well.... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:49 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


“So if the Eskimo don’t have dozens of words for snow then was Chandler lying to me about the Hawaiians having just as many for ocean conditions?” - Rick Kane
posted by alamedarchy at 10:07 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Spitbull's comment about the aggluginative nature of Innuit languages and dialects makes me feel like the real difference is that the Innuit simply have a different idea of where a "word" begins and ends than English speakers do. Multiply that by lumping multiple languages into one and it's starting to sound like if you said "the Europeans have fifty different words for dirt" by counting up all the words for dirt/mud/arable land/maybe even sand in every Romance language without acknowledging any cultural or linguistic difference between Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, and Romania because they're just a bunch of smelly euros and you can't be bothered to tell them apart.
posted by egypturnash at 10:15 PM on February 11 [24 favorites]


I bet like, skiiers and snowboarders have 50 words in English or different kinds of snow (on preview like 5 people have made that same point but whatever)

anyway this was a really interesting article. I wish I knew more about the uh, historiography of linguistics (?) but
i am just a weekend language-fancier. however! a link in that piece led me to this motherlode of papers -- I don't know anything about this author or this website but I am shall read these with great interest.
posted by capnsue at 11:06 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I know far more than fifty words for dirt and I'm nearly a monoglot, egypturnash. I just happen to really like dirt, enough to know both the technical vocabulary and a lot of historical and regional terms.

For that matter, in a few weeks' lectures on glaciation (as part of studying erosion to understand soil) I think I had more than twenty words for snow in my glossary. Yes, add the skiiers and English would hit fifty easily. (Even if we don't allow phrases like ``heart-attack snow''.)

We need a better catchphrase for ``if something is important to you you will probably come to recognize many states and possibilities in it and develop a vocabulary for that''.
posted by clew at 11:10 PM on February 11 [5 favorites]


That’s a really good essay.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is rightly distrusted, because it leaves us gazing down the slippery slope towards the rotting pile of garbage at the bottom: the idea that “some languages are better than others”; the idea that you can only think rationally / morally / whatever in Language X [Language X is English, always English]; that beguiling idea that cultural chauvinists will always leap at, to argue that what might appear to be historical accident was in fact due to linguistic superiority. (How about one of the subjects of my Chinese Typewriter post, who claimed that “because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity”? Or think of Neil Ferguson’s ludicrous “killer apps of Western civilisation” - then cleanse your palate by reading Pankaj Mishra’s brutal takedown of his work. Don’t miss the letters tab at the bottom, in which Ferguson threatens to sue.)

Buuuuut - doesn’t anyone who’s ever reached a reasonable level of ability in a second language also kind of know that Sapir-Whorf is true, in some sense? Not anything as simplistic as “this language is better / worse”, but there are always some concepts that pop out naturally in one language yet require clumsy work-arounds to explain in another, and even so don’t really capture the spirit of the original. The Eskimo quote is dumb and reductive and offensive, but Whorf was right to suggest that learning new languages does give you new ways to express yourself. Translation is an art, even in the age of Google and machine translation. A weak version of Sapir-Whorf is trivially obvious when you accept that you can’t simply transliterate between all languages. There are fundamental differences in expression, and these should probably be celebrated:
His point—the opposite of the one I had expected to find—is that a Connecticut physicist could potentially learn a lot from speakers of “Eskimo” languages, not only because native peoples might know things about how the world works, but because in the friction between different ways of perceiving, we can become aware of the conceptual and linguistic constraints on how our own knowledge can be deployed. For this reason, he closes with an exhortation to “that humility which accompanies the true scientific spirit, and thus forbid that arrogance of the mind which hinders real scientific curiosity and detachment.”
Exactly!
posted by chappell, ambrose at 11:11 PM on February 11 [31 favorites]


We need a better catchphrase for ``if something is important to you you will probably come to recognize many states and possibilities in it and develop a vocabulary for that''.

"Technical jargon"?
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:24 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


OH MY GOODNESS -- chappel, ambrose -- that Pankaj Mishra piece you linked is just glorious. thank you. I am learning so much good stuff from this post.
posted by capnsue at 11:29 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


I think that the phrase is criticized so harshly because of the needless exoticizing.
"The Germans have 50 words for bread" is probably equally true or false (depending on which point you want to make), but somehow much less interesting.
posted by sour cream at 12:40 AM on February 12 [7 favorites]


I really enjoyed the "English has hundreds of word for water" part. Liquid water falling from sky (rain), chunks of solid water falling from sky (hail), small amount of water that collects on the ground after falling from sky (puddle), enormous natural collection of liquid water (ocean), large naturally-formed chunk of solid water floating in enormous natural collection of liquid water (iceberg), etc.
posted by Bugbread at 2:21 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]


snow snowfall snowstorm snowsquall blizzard whiteout flurry dusting lake-effect sleet slush drift bank frost hoarfrost rime crust slope powder hardpack mogul corn crud onding skift graupel névé firn grue snowflake flaggie column dendrite needle polycrystal sastrugi penitent fingerdrift pillowdrift suncup barchan cornice snowpack snowbridge snowball snowman snowfort snowcone igloo avalanche it wasn't even hard.
posted by kyrademon at 2:26 AM on February 12 [12 favorites]


Metafilter: 50 words for eponysterical.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:34 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


British English certainly has a lot of words for rain and there are even more in Scots and Irish (both in Irish English and Irish proper). A quick search turned up loads of lists, and almost all of them began with a quote of the "50 names for snow" thing.
posted by Fuchsoid at 2:40 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


snow snowfall snowstorm snowsquall...

OK, but what you are doing here is making use of a productive rule in English, namely take word A ("snow") and word B ("man") and combine them into a new word ("snowman").

If you use that rule, you can come up with hundreds or thousands of words for "snow", or just about any other broad concept in English. In fact, you can do that not just in English, but in just about any other language as well, because other languages have similar productive rules.

So the result is that in any language you can come up with any number of words (given the right definition of "word") for just about any broad concept.

I don't think that this proves or disproves anything, and it misses the point that the original statement "Eskimos (or Inuit) have 50 words for snow" is trying to make, regardless whether that point is valid or not.
posted by sour cream at 2:41 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"I don't think that this proves or disproves anything, and it misses the point that the original statement "Eskimos (or Inuit) have 50 words for snow" is trying to make"

But...but it's the exact same thing discussed in the article.

"regardless whether that point is valid or not."

But that's exactly what this whole post is about.
posted by Bugbread at 2:45 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]


You know what I think? I think not everyone is reading the article before commenting. That's what I think.
posted by goatdog at 2:54 AM on February 12 [33 favorites]


A Canadian friend and WOC took me gently aside once to explain that for Inuit and other Arctic peoples the e-word is analogous the n-word in connotations and use. Since then it kind of hurts to see it. For me it also brings a kind of inescapable association of the other word with it. I know people have used inverted commas, and that there's people posting here with so much more familiarity with the relevant cultures than I have but - is there a more sensitive way of alluding to the word? And I think it would be great to stop using it casually.
posted by glasseyes at 5:09 AM on February 12 [7 favorites]


Whorf were asking: can learning new languages make new kinds of thought possible? That’s worth asking because it’s not about the people of the Arctic circle; it’s a question about us, about what it might be possible to think if we started using the multiplicity made possible by humanity’s multilingual diversity.

I appreciated the discussions around the assumption of us and them and the exotic other. I also appreciated the discussion of how a word or a term can be considered offensive and not offensive depending on who is using it and in what context. I teach in a place that is extremely ethnically and linguistically diverse and both of these things have informed the way that I teach my classes. I continue to catch myself making assumptions and I have to think about my choices. It is humbling how often I have to reevaluate use of language or patterns of thought that I previously though were correct, well established and self evident. With me as with my students this is often not about being right or wrong, but about thinking about how context inevitably colours our experience of the world.
posted by Cuke at 5:12 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


My takeaway from that article: the title's damn clever. Because the article is not just about counting "Eskimo" words for stuff, but about how mainstream "white" society uses words like "Eskimo" to create outlandish stereotypes and propagate lazily offensive conventional wisdom that turns out to be false and then subsequently turn out to be, as they say "not even wrong." The world is a nuanced place, but nuance is too much for people to hold in their brains; we such a have a strong tendency to want to reductivize that we become defiantly attached to our oversimplifications. Oh great, now we can't even say "Eskimo" any more? you'll hear people aggressively whine. Like, we're perfectly fine with there being 50 words for snow but we're violently opposed to having to use more than one word to identify the multiplicity of arctic indigenous societies. And even more opposed to the humility and commitment it takes to really learn and accept the ways of others on an equal footing. Which, come to think of it, was basically the point of Ygritte's quip in that famous fantasy series.
posted by xigxag at 5:13 AM on February 12 [10 favorites]


Well, just to reiterate: words like that act as an assault, in the hearing/reading of them, for those on the wrong end of the term. That point is not quite on-topic as far as the subject of the essay but it's a plea for nudging the norms of Metafilter towards sensitivity of use, for that and similar words.
posted by glasseyes at 5:19 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


This is really an excellent article and well worth the read through. Thank you chappell, ambrose and goatdog and others for rerailing things.

Maybe Mefi needs a vocabulary for commenting-without-reading :)
posted by kokaku at 5:22 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Wait are we really re-litigating the actual underlying claim here?

Just to be clear, no modern linguist think the “number of words” a language has for something is in any way a significant measure of cognition or experience.

There is a large and sophisticated literature on the larger question of linguistic relativity from folks like John Lucy and William Hanks. They all stress non-lexical levels of grammar.
posted by spitbull at 5:36 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


Glasseyes, I hear you. I don’t think the broader culture has caught up enough for people to recognize “the e-word” in relation to arctic native peoples, or “the g-word” for Roma, but I’d like to see explainers like this use the full term only once and afterwards use a referent instead. This article does make the point that the e-word is offensive in some communities and not in others, which may complicate matters. I try to excise words from my discourse when I learn they’re offensive, but we all have to learn somewhere for the first time that a word we think is common parlance is actually hurtful. I’m thankful for MetaFilter, where I have learned some of those lessons.
posted by rikschell at 5:42 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]


I’m also going to point out that the Inuits I know only have two words for white people. But the way to say it expands to at least 50 versions of what you think about white people or any particular white person.

Also, minor point, but they almost all natively speak English too, and their English wholesale imports some grammatical distinctions from their own language into its constructions, especially verb aspect distinctions standard English doesn’t make.

Also, kayaks, parkas, mukluks —- Taniks know a lot of Inuit words.


Also the Eskimo/Inuit Thing is complicated. I’ve wrtitten on it here before. Alaskan Inuits are mostly fine being called “Eskimo” and use the term themselves as a common ethnonyn across “tribal” (linguistic) lines. In Canada it’s a racial slur. Period.
posted by spitbull at 5:44 AM on February 12 [22 favorites]


Very tenuously related, but if anybody would like to read a superb speculative novella about a [very, very] strong version of Sapir-Whorf, then Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is well worth tracking down. It was made into the film Arrival, but personally I think it’s a lot smarter in its original form.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:27 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]


A Canadian friend and WOC took me gently aside once to explain that for Inuit and other Arctic peoples the e-word is analogous the n-word in connotations and use. Since then it kind of hurts to see it.

My understanding is that the Canadian Inuit prefer that it not be used, but Alaskan Native Americans do in fact use it. Which admittedly makes it difficult to know what to do when you're not sure which group is being referenced.
posted by praemunire at 9:18 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


> Like, we're perfectly fine with there being 50 words for snow but we're violently opposed to having to use more than one word to identify the multiplicity of arctic indigenous societies. And even more opposed to the humility and commitment it takes to really learn and accept the ways of others on an equal footing.

> "[...] because in the friction between different ways of perceiving, we can become aware of the conceptual and linguistic constraints on how our own knowledge can be deployed."

Well, there's yer problem right there. If ignorance is a pathway to knowledge, willful ignorance is a mental laziness or complacency. And friction generated around one's perceptions can signify some form of unwanted but necessary work or effort. Like asking someone to get out of a warm bed on a cold day. (If you can even get past the initial negative reaction some people have when confronted with constraints of their knowledge, that is.)
posted by Arson Lupine at 9:20 AM on February 12


i loved the discussion of we/you/us/etc. this was a fantastic article and thanks for sharing.

after reading through the full thread, i'm hoping i'm not re-hashing too much with this thought... the nugget of greatness embedded in this unfortunately bigoted and short-sighted fallacy is that peoples/cultures whose life experiences are different than "ours" have a unique and evolved way of comprehending and processing their environments.
the fact that someone who lives in an environment of nearly year-round snow, ice, and freezing temperatures would have some large number of words for snow is a strong (and frankly, i find magical) concept, and it's a shame that we don't have a more thoughtful and non-disrespectful (but simple) way of discussing that sort of thing.
posted by rude.boy at 9:29 AM on February 12


I happened upon this article about what "language" is spoken in the Balkans today. I think it's a great companion piece that points out the real-life political ramifications inherent in drawing lines between dialects and languages. It also mentions the e-word (the the problematic nature of same).
posted by rikschell at 9:39 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


"Bad questions produce bad answers, and nothing is as mind-deadening as the confidently presented arrogance of facts reduced to numbers: what could be as irrelevant and useless as the number fifty? And what could be a more succinct demonstration of the Sapir-Whorf principle than a question whose terms and linguistic assumptions close off the very stories it’s trying to tell?"

Ask bad questions, get bad answers. Europeans have more than 50 words for snow, that doesn't really suggest snow is extremely core to their culture, lives, or history.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:20 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I think that the phrase is criticized so harshly because of the needless exoticizing.
"The Germans have 50 words for bread" is probably equally true or false (depending on which point you want to make), but somehow much less interesting.


There probably is a German word for bread that is 50 nouns compounded into one word.
posted by srboisvert at 10:36 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


I'll be the grouch here and confess that I didn't really like the article.

When it starts off with the promise that 'Every word in "Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow" is wrong', I really expect a passing reference, at least, to the wrongness of "have" and "for". Come on.

No argument with the criticism of Eskimo, and yeah, the "50" number is obviously bullshit. But it is deeply, deeply unsatisfying to be left with:
... just as the incommensurability of the different languages means you can’t say that “Eskimos” do have more words for snow than do Anglophones, it also means that you can’t really say that they don’t. ... all the wrong answers are at least as interesting and useful as the so-called right ones. The most confident pronouncements are the least enlightening.
Damnit, Metafilter, when I follow a link, I expect to be told that there is one definitive, correct, final answer, and I have no time for this sort of nuanced ambiguity.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:00 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I'm horrified by the suggestion that German bread bakers are naturally not `exotic' but people who live above the Arctic circle are.
posted by clew at 11:14 AM on February 12


This falls into the category of phrases that are factually not true, but so useful that they tend to hang around. "Boiling a frog," "Like lemmings to the cliff," "50 words for snow." I hear them a lot in the corporate environment, and I think the people who use them ultimately wouldn't care that they're not true. Because when you use them, everybody knows what you mean even if the real meaning is null.

We need a word for these kinds of phrases.
posted by ga$money at 11:19 AM on February 12


I grew up in Alaska and had teachers who were both white and Native Alaskan and was consistently taught that the e-word was deeply ignorant (conflating very different groups) and horrifyingly offensive, and I can't remember anyone using it except very rarely in a deliberately hurtful and purposely offensive way. I don't understand where people get the "it's less offensive in Alaska" thing unless things have changed drastically since I left.
posted by rafaella gabriela sarsaparilla at 11:44 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


I'm horrified by the suggestion that German bread bakers are naturally not `exotic' but people who live above the Arctic circle are.

I thought the implication was pretty clear. Like, "isn't it interesting how this one statement about indigenous Arctic peoples became an aphorism instead of any of a huge number of sayings about European peoples/languages that would be equally true".
posted by tobascodagama at 11:46 AM on February 12


If anyone wants something to replace the e-word but does't know all the names of the various peoples or how and when to use them, the anthropologist Tim Ingold often uses the expression "circumpolar peoples".
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:49 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I don't know when you left, but it is not treated as obviously offensive in discussions such as Alaska Airlines use of it in an ad campaign.
Alexie is like many Yup'iks interviewed for this story who are accustomed to the term and have no firm position about whether it's appropriate.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:58 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"isn't it interesting how this one statement about indigenous Arctic peoples became an aphorism instead of any of a huge number of sayings about European peoples/languages that would be equally true".
The saying-structure only works when it refers to something unfamiliar to the listener, because the bread-acculturated don't understand that the bread-indifferent don't have scores of words for bread. You need to realize you're ignorant of something to recognize "the friction between different ways of perceiving".
posted by clew at 12:16 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Which means that we're likely to use the phrase if we're not above the Arctic, but it's not even useful if we don't think we would have more working distinctions for snow if we did.

(edited to change "because" to "if", sorry)
posted by clew at 12:23 PM on February 12


As usual when it comes to indigenous questions, I worked my way through this interesting essay about tortured cogitations without ever coming across "when we asked the Eskimos...".

Which I *think* would solve the puzzle.
posted by Twang at 1:04 PM on February 12


Except the puzzle is not really "Do people who self-identify as 'Eskimos' speak a language that has fifty or more discrete words for 'snow'?" The people who know this saying think of the "e-word" as referring a group of people that it is mostly wrongly attached to.
posted by rikschell at 1:46 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


OK, but can we still agree that Yiddish has at least 73 words for "dumbass"?
posted by McCoy Pauley at 2:53 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I expect to be told that there is one definitive, correct, final answer, and I have no time for this sort of nuanced ambiguity.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:00 AM on February 12 [1 favorite +] [!]


The eponysterical is strong in this one.
posted by chavenet at 2:56 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


grew up in Alaska and had teachers who were both white and Native Alaskan and was consistently taught that the e-word was deeply ignorant (conflating very different groups) and horrifyingly offensive, and I can't remember anyone using it except very rarely in a deliberately hurtful and purposely offensive way. I don't understand where people get the "it's less offensive in Alaska" thing unless things have changed drastically since I left.
posted by rafaella gabriela sarsaparilla


Well, you’re just wrong in my extensive experience of working in Iñupiat communities for the last 12 years. First off, the correct term is “Alaska Native,” not “Native Alaskan” (which means something else), and so your non-Native teachers may not have been such experts on the issue, because that distinction is actually more salient than “Eskimo.”

There are younger and more cosmopolitan Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and Aleut folks who disdain “Eskimo” for its racist and colonial history, and so do almost all Canadian Inuits I have known (not a small number). But in Alaska you will commonly see “Eskimo Soul Power” bumper stickers on trucks in villages and burisnesses names “Eskimo this/that,” owned by Natives, and regular use of the term as an in-group Ethnonym. Indeed many older Yup’ik and Inupiaq folks have a hard time with “Inuit.”

None of these are organic historical “tribal” groupings. The village (kinship based) was the traditional tribal entity. Language families were imposed on this world by Europeans as ethnic markers. Canadian Inuktitut and Alaskan Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimos”) recognize common kingship from sharing migratory hunting territory that crossed the modern national border. And Alaskans and Canadians do fine navigating this issue, both understanding the different contexts.

Yes, some mostly urban and educated Alaska Natives definitely want to deprecate “Eskimo,” for god reasons. But it is deeply embedded in Alaskan culture, politics, and history and I know hundreds of Iñupiaq folks who proudly and happily call themselves “Eskimos.”
posted by spitbull at 3:02 PM on February 12 [8 favorites]


also, not all Alaska Natives are Inuit/Eskimo.
posted by spitbull at 3:02 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I must add that Inuits are really pragmatic people, a side effect of living where life and death are separated by the ability to improvise, be flexible, invent, and get along with your fellow villagers (sharing food is the definitive “Eskimo” cultural practice). In my experience they’d find a bunch of taniks getting exercised over what to call them funny.
posted by spitbull at 3:13 PM on February 12


One more observation,which is the French-origin “Eskimo” lends itself to creative affixation or infixation to other ethnonyms, useful for describing the many blended identities one now finds in the modern Arctic. I’ve heard”Meximo,” (Mexican), ”Eskipino,” (Filipino) and “Eskimoan/mongan” (Samoan or Tongan).

I’ve never heard “Inuit” so used. I have heard hybridized versions of “Iñupiaq” (adjectival) before. But the hybrids with “Eskimo” make fun of western obsessions with blood-based or language-based “ethnicity” as a translocal “nationality,” which is not at all a traditional idea.

If you ask most Iñupiat (and I ’ve asked many) what their most important “ethnic” identity was, they would always cite their ancestral village ethnonym — Tikigaq for Point Hopers, for example.

They might as well be saying “my extended family, including by adoption,” which was widely traditionally practiced in the arctic and remains so today.
posted by spitbull at 3:30 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


RedOrGreen: "When it starts off with the promise that 'Every word in "Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow" is wrong', I really expect a passing reference, at least, to the wrongness of "have" and "for". Come on."

I think the "have" part was addressed by the discussion about how language use is dying out, with the implication that perhaps the would should be "had," not "have." But, yeah, I didn't see anything about "for," and that was the one I was most curious about.
posted by Bugbread at 3:42 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


This falls into the category of phrases that are factually not true, but so useful that they tend to hang around. "Boiling a frog," "Like lemmings to the cliff," "50 words for snow." I hear them a lot in the corporate environment, and I think the people who use them ultimately wouldn't care that they're not true. Because when you use them, everybody knows what you mean even if the real meaning is null.

We need a word for these kinds of phrases.


I suggest "Idiotums"
posted by srboisvert at 4:19 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I am a real Alaskan who is not young (thus plenty of years of life experience) and didn’t just grow up here, but stayed here for college, career, and friends/family. Besides growing up with our Native cultures, i have worked professionally with Native cultural organizations as well as the branches of academia related to Native languages and history since the 1980s.

I never use the terms “Eskimo” or “Indian”, but Spitbull’s post above is correct and does a good job at explaining the situation.
posted by D.C. at 5:27 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


Yes, some mostly urban and educated Alaska Natives definitely want to deprecate “Eskimo,” for god reasons.

I think Raven stole an “o” from your sentence for the lulz.
posted by D.C. at 5:30 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


I think that the phrase is criticized so harshly because of the needless exoticizing.
This. And a simple example might be that the French have (at least) seven ways of saying “return”.
posted by rongorongo at 6:34 PM on February 12


D.C. is also correct in that white outsiders are best advised to use the proper language-based ethnonyms in most circumstances. As with most in-group ethnonyms that are also potentially outgroup slurs, it depends on context and familiarity and how you say it. Lots of Native humor deals with such subjects.

It just isn’t the simple binary of “racist/not racist” the way many of us Southern Whale Lovers (Inuit gentle slam on lower-48ers who don’t approve of whaling) leap to defend.

In addition to being pragmatic folks, most Inuit I’ve known also have very good racism radar. Plenty of racists use the “right” words.

Someday I’ll post about the rather tortuous process of renaming “Barrow” as “Utkiagviq” a few years back. Younger folks wanted it as a statement of sovereignty and cultural pride.

Many elders were like “I grew up in Barrow, I speak Iñupiaq, what do I care if the town has an Iñupiaq name?” If has several traditional names as the area contained more than one historical village settlement, so they had to semi-invent a new name so as not to favor one of those still-vital historical identities people still strongly hold.

And now people still call it “Barrow,” “BRW” (the airport code), and also call it “Utkiagviq” when appropriate. Both terms are current and acceptable but context-dependent. No one gets mad when people say “Barrow.” Outsiders have a hard time saying and writing Iñupiaq words. They get it. Pragmatic as ever, that’s fine with the community.
posted by spitbull at 1:56 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Also, DC, as you probably know, most Alaska Natives are just as likely to do things for “God” reasons as for “good” ones. The two are often the same. Christianity is also as central to most folks’ identity in the Arctic as language.
posted by spitbull at 2:00 AM on February 13


In my experience they’d find a bunch of taniks getting exercised over what to call them funny.

Tanik is turning out not to be a word I can google. My guess from context is "outsiders" or "dumbass outsiders" but options abound. A little help?
posted by bile and syntax at 5:49 AM on February 13


With the article, I'm from Minnesota and have always found the idea of fifty words for snow rather obvious - even aside from the curse words, we have a lot of ways to describe texture, how wet or dry it is, whether it's easy to shovel, whether you can go sledding, whether it's melting, whether it's melting into your clothes, whether your neighbor has declined to shovel AGAIN, whether you're in the snow emergency tow zone. I was totally fascinated in college to learn about Alaskan and Canadian indigenous languages and the ways they put long, long words together - my advisor's example was a Siglituun word that meant "I will never go caribou hunting with him in the winter again", which I have sadly lost the phonetic translation for (I've never been familiar enough with the writing system to read it) and I always found it fascinating the way that the grammar worked, combining all the various parts into long words that are also essentially sentences, even more than the German tendencies to just compound a ton of nouns together into a new noun. This was perhaps particularly fascinating for me because I spent three years of college studying Chinese, which is basically the opposite - a lot of very small units of meaning, a very low word to morpheme ratio. I'm so interested in how this evolves, how we organize and express meaning and how one language says words are small and another says they're huge but made of small parts.

My take on Whorf has been that when groups of people need a word, they will tend to find something, and where the word doesn't exist but the meaning does there's a lot of angst, confusion, or both and often an ugly power struggle to go with it. Some languages borrow a lot of new words, like English and Japanese. Others put words together, like the Chinese word for "turkey" translates literally as "fire chicken". My most obvious experience with the need for new words is the rising number of words for LGBT+ identities and associated terminology, words I needed all my life and many of which I didn't have to recently, some of which I still don't have.

Anyway - this is a wonderful article and I appreciate all the discussion in here. This stuff is why I'm on here.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:08 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


“Tanik” is Iñupiaq (noun and adjective) for “white people/person,” and associated qualities; and whether it is derogatory, merely descriptive, or affectionate depends entirely on how it’s said, and by/to whom. With infinite gradations between those. Most often it is merely a descriptive adjective: supermarket food is “tanik food.” It’s also a neutral classifying noun: I am “a tanik” as a way of identifying me, or even “our tanik son.” But you’ll also hear it used more as an ethnic slur, or as a way of deprecating something as not sufficiently Indigenous. “Why do you dance like a tanik?”

So rather like most historical ethnonyms, and indeed like “Eskimo,” it is context dependent for its precise meaning.
posted by spitbull at 4:02 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Why aren't there more words for snow? I'm in Maine and we just got a delivery of snow. It was the sort of snow that sparkled a bit it fell, the wind drove and packed it. My little snowblower struggled mightily to shift it, and prevailed. As I was snowblowing the drive, it snowed a little more, then the moon came out. A couple weeks ago we had a snow flurry with huge snowflakes (clumps, actually) that fell very thick and extremely fast for a short while. Some snow is silent, soft flakes piling up, some snow makes a tiny sound when it hits. Once, we got big crystalline snowflakes that shimmered and spun in the streetlight like nothing I've seen before or since.
posted by theora55 at 7:30 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


By the bye, a more compelling and amazing subject would be Inuit terminologies for and physical understanding of ice.

A colleague of mine wrote a rather extraordinary book on the subject.

Modern Arctic science is deeply indebted to Indigenous knowledge about Arctic climates and environments. To hunt with the elders in that book is to be astounded at the level of perception and awareness they possess about properties of the environment you can’t even detect.
posted by spitbull at 9:46 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


"Whorf wrote 'Science and Linguistics' because he was interested in relativity, a concept popularized by Albert Einstein that’s more epistemological than strictly testable."

There's a lot of intellectual history to unpack in that, but my strongest reaction is that this is among the numerous examples of the author demonstrating that he's out of his depth. With regard to Einsteinian relativity, he's quite wrong.

Being charitable, I think the author intended something more like "Einstein's discoveries captured the popular imagination and fueled great intellectual interest in all forms of relativism, some more epistemological than testable". Special and General Relativity are, of course, eminently testable and not epistemically relativistic.

Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Relativism. Of interest with regard to the quoted paragraph is section 3, A Brief History of an Old Idea [bolding mine], which concludes with:
Finally, the popularity of the very idea of relativism in the 20th century owes something to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905) which was to be used both as model and as well as a vindication for various relativistic claims. Gilbert Harman is among the philosophers to use Einsteinian relativity as a model for philosophical versions of relativism. He says:
According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity even an object’s mass is relative to a choice of spatio-temporal framework. An object can have one mass in relation to one such framework and a different mass in relation to another. …. I am going to argue for a similar claim about moral right and wrong. … I am going to argue that moral right and wrong …. are always relative to a choice of moral framework. (Harman 1996: 3)
The Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic relativity (see §4.1) is also thought to have been inspired by the Relativity Theory. It is however worth noting that Einstein did not think that the Theory of Relativity supported relativism in ethics or epistemology because, although in his model simultaneity and sameness of place are relative to reference frames, the physical laws expressing such relativity are constant and universal and hence in no sense relative.

The different strands of the intellectual genealogy of relativism have shaped a variety of relativistic doctrines.
As both that section and the entire entry show, relativism of various sorts is ancient. While it's true that the Special Theory of Relativity had a profound impact on 20th century intellectual history, the much more proximate influence on linguistic relativity was from cultural anthropology and that's the tradition within which the development of this idea is best understood.

Aproximately no one asserts that a weak form of linguistic relativism isn't self-evidently true. We notice this in languages, dialects, and individual idiolects. It's so self-evident, it's not very interesting.

Strong linguistic relativism -- which the more excitable or credulous embrace after encountering the "words for snow" meme -- makes claims both about human languages (which are testable) and human cognition (which are also testable). Such claims have not stood up to scrutiny.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:48 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]


kyrademon: "snow snowfall snowstorm snowsquall blizzard whiteout flurry dusting lake-effect sleet slush drift bank frost hoarfrost rime crust slope powder hardpack mogul corn crud onding skift graupel névé firn grue snowflake flaggie column dendrite needle polycrystal sastrugi penitent fingerdrift pillowdrift suncup barchan cornice snowpack snowbridge snowball snowman snowfort snowcone igloo avalanche it wasn't even hard."

Some of these would make for some bitchin' Warrior Cat names.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:02 AM on February 15


Yes, Ivan, this author is just out of his depth. You show why that’s true with respect to the popular interst in relativity theory (which is really a distinct history from cultural and linguistic relativism).

But the limits with respect to knowledge of basic intellectual histories of linguistic thought are just as disappointing here.

Boas and Trubetskoy both showed, years earlier, that at the phonemic level of language structure, properties of particular languages absolutely and provably shape our perception of sound. The influence of language on perception is irrefutable. Most people simply *can’t hear or reproduce* phonemic distinctions unfamiliar from their own language(s) without a conscious effort.

The lexical level of language is far closer to consciousness. That’s why laypeople like to argue about it. Most don’t have the most basic theoretical understanding of how their own brains make and interpret language.

Acquiring and/or inventing inventory of new lexemes to distinguish important objects or states in one’s environment is a trivial accomplishment for a 6 year old. They do it every day.

Changing an infixed agentive animacy-marking morpheme in a “word” that is also a sentence because you just realized a truck made that “blowing snow” and not the wind is a whole other level of unconscious processing. And if you can do it on the fly as soon as you see the truck up ahead it likely means your ancestors were doing it when they realized a caribou herd was up ahead and took off after it.

I’ve learned more about language hunting with Inuits than I learned in grad school.
posted by spitbull at 3:27 AM on February 15 [4 favorites]


I learned a lot of snow/ice words when I used to subscribe to Ski Magazine. Sastrugi!
posted by Chrysostom at 8:08 PM on February 15


« Older What's the bandwidth of a seal with a USB drive?   |   Te tiriti o Waitangi: the comic book Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments