How many words does Eskimo (is that Inupiat or Yupik?) have for snow?
Geoffrey Pullum called the bluff in an article called “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”. In fact, Pullum tentatively concludes, Eskimo seems to have only two distinct word roots for ‘snow’. Even if it were true that Eskimo had so many words for ‘snow’, this would hardly matter much to students of linguistic typology. Let us use a real example to explain why. (Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages chapter 4 page 3)
So I looke up Pullum and his entry on Language Log said
Laura Martin has been inveighing against it since 1982, when she spoke to the American Anthropological Association about it as a kind of academic urban legend that anthropological linguists had been spreading. In 1986 (after four years of arm-wrestling with embarrassed anthropologist referees who would really have been happier if this did not come out) she finally published a short note on the topic in American Anthropologist.
Later I wrote a deliberately humorous article myself called “The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax”, attempting to publicize Laura’s work among linguists. My article has been published in five or six different places, including as the title essay of my 1991 book, which was written up in Newsweek and various other places, and has been drawn to the attention of journalists and editors. But it’s clear to me that Laura and I are just wasting our time. People have written letters to The New York Times over and over again about this, quoting from their previous letters, and it makes no difference: the Times has repeated the Eskimo claim several times. Jane Brody alone has used it at least twice, citing a different number of snow words each time, and has ignored letters about the topic.
The truth about snow words in the Eskimo languages simply doesn’t matter. If it did, I would carefully explain that there seem to be only a handful of roots that really are snow roots in the languages of the Yup’iks and Inuits, maybe four or five, not very different from the number found in English (snow, sleet, slush, blizzard). But it doesn’t matter. All that matters to journalists is that they continue to have the snowbound simile in question at their disposal for constant use whenever a line or two needs to be filled up with linguistic babble.
So really Laura Martin is the one who “called the bluff.” Pullum attempted to disseminate it. Did it work?
I just asked my husband how many there are. He said “48.” I said, “No, only two, or at most four or five if you include blizzard, sleet, slush.” He said, “No way.”
And, if you want the jokes about it, go here. And I’ve actually heard others. “If Eskimos have forty-two words for snow, then the Russians have that many for beauracracy.”