September 4, 2010


There's a piece of traditional wisdom that goes something like "Eskimos have twenty-seven different words for snow." Upon hearing this, the listener is supposed to be impressed somehow at the depth of variation and description in the Eskimo language, and to recall the amount of experience Eskimos must have with snow in order to need this many words in their language.

To me this is an example of how framing an issue can alter one's perception of it. To English-speaking descendants of mostly European people living in temperate zones, "snow" seems like an adequate, all-purpose word. But it really isn't. We not only have "snow," we have "ice" and "sleet" and "hail" and "slush" and "pack" and "powder" to describe frozen water. And in fact this is all water, for which we have still more words like "puddle" and "steam" and "river" and "ocean" and "boil" and "brine." All these words contain nuances of meaning and describe how water is encountered, how it is delivered, its temperature, what it is doing, how it is being used, and so on.

Never mind that there are is no specific people as "Eskimos;" rather, there are ethnic groups like Inuit, Yupik, Aleut, and Athabascans and such. Each of these distinct ethnic groups has their own language and their own set of particular cultural traditions; an Aleut living in Alaska is probably culturally and linguistically much more similar to a Yupik living in the Yukon Territory than he is to a Tutsi living in Rwanda, but the Aleut and Yupik would still distinguish themselves from one another in matters of language and ethnic background. Some of them have assimilated into American or Canadian culture to varying degrees and therefore act and speak like Europeans. It's as accurate to refer to an "Eskimo" language as it is to refer to an "European" language or an "African" language.

The "twenty-seven Eskimo words for snow" is a mental trick, one of perspective and levels of mental analysis. Like many good deceptions, it contains an element of truth -- language evolves and molds over time to fit the needs of its users, and people living in different climates face different challenges -- but beyond those broad levels of generality, it deceives in more ways than it informs.

First, it points to a level of generality that contradicts its own contention. There is no "Eskimo" language; there is an "Eskimo" group of languages. There would of course be multiple words for the same thing in multiple languages.

Second, it sets up a false comparison. It plays to your prejudice about Eskimos living in snowbound conditions all the time and therefore finds a likely gap in your knowledge in which to nestle. "Eskimos, they deal with snow all the time, so of course they must have lots of words for it!"  In fact, if you think about it deeply, the false comparison it sets up is one which incorporates a distortion of your own perspective -- it tricks you into assuming that there is only one English word for snow, when in fact there are quite a few.

And third, it approaches its topic at an ambiguous level of generality. "Snow" is possessed of particular qualities, which make it "snow-like." Those qualities of "snow-ness" are only important in certain contexts, and would be important only in certain contexts whether you are an Inuit, an Israeli, or an Italian. In other contexts, "snow" is one form of "water," or in still other contexts, "snow" is one form of "weather." It's not so much an apples-to-oranges comparison as an apples-to-fruit comparison.

A specific kind of water, under specific conditions and in a specific context, is called "snow" in the English language and no doubt that same kind of water under the same kind of conditions and the same context has a specific and singular word in Athabascan, as well. Alter the specific properties of the substance and "snow" becomes "ice" in English, and why should Athabascan be any different in altering the word to meet the altered properties? So, why do we look to Eskimos in particular to inform a proverb about the abstract function of language?

What's amazing is that this remarkably fuzzy piece of thinking has somehow become embedded in our collective thinking as "wisdom."


Stephen M. Stillman said...

Thanks- this is interesting. I'm trying to think of other tricks of this sort and I'm not coming up with much. Maybe "single mother". She could be a divorced mother, a mother resulting from a one-night stand, a mother living with the child's father in a committed relationship, a mother who used artificial insemination, a mother who adopted, etc. Yet, when a woman calls herself a "single mother" some of us might conjure up a singular image.
Are there other language deceptions like "snow" for Eskimos?

Kaz Dragon said...

Not to mention, as discussed on the fantastic show "QI", they don't have that many words for snow, while they have an extraordinary number of words for "that thing over there."