Tuesday, February 3, 2009

$#@&?%! and Other Words for Snow

Snow has been on my mind a lot lately. Winter this year in Rhode Island has been unusually cold and snowy; the normal total snowfall in December and January is 17.1 inches, and this winter we have had 35 inches so far (Salit, 2009).

For me, it’s been especially hard to cope with after spending the first couple of weeks of January in the southern hemisphere summer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For much of that time, the temperature was in the mid-90 degrees (more about my trip in future posts).

This winter confirms the silliness of that hoary myth about the 9, 48, 100, or 400 words for snow that Eskimos supposedly have. Actually, the Eskimos don’t have any more words for snow than New Englanders do. As Richard Salit put it in his 2/1/09 article in the Providence Journal, "Colder, Harsher Winter,"

“If Eskimos have lots of words for snow (which is apparently a myth), Rhode Islanders, especially public works directors, probably have a few choice words of their own for the stuff.”

Linguist Steven Pinker (1995), in The Language Instinct, succinctly analyzes how the myth of Eskimo words for snow took off, referring to work by anthropologist Laura Martin and linguist Geoffrey Pullman. (See my post of 8/29/08, “What’s the difference between a chimpanzee, a sewage sludge hauler, and my mother?” for another debunking by Steven Pinker).

It’s a good case study in how the misinterpretation of an obscure scientific observation by a careless amateur with an ideological agenda can blow up into a wildly inaccurate factoid.

“In 1911, [anthropologist Franz] Boas casually mentioned that Eskimos used four unrelated word roots for snow. [Insurance inspector and amateur scholar of Native American languages Benjamin Lee] Whorf embellished the count to seven and implied that there were more. His article was widely reprinted, then cited in textbooks and popular books on language, which led to successively inflated estimates in other textbooks, articles, and newspaper columns of Amazing Facts.” (p. 64)

Pullman, as cited by Pinker, theorized that a patronizing, racist attitude toward “primitive” cultures encouraged the “credulous transmission and elaboration of a false claim” that would not be intellectually interesting even if it were true: “Botanists have names for leaf shapes; decorators have names for shades of mauve.” (p. 64)

The myth about Eskimo words for snow has spawned a plethora of popular culture references. Ministers have gotten a lot of mileage out of it for sermons on various topics. Many comical lists of fake Eskimo words for snow have been created, such as one by Phil James, quoted by David Mendosa (example: hahatla, small packages of snow given as gag gifts).

It occurs to me, as the millionth snowstorm of the season is taking place outside my window, that the English vocabulary for snow isn’t nearly enough for Rhode Islanders to accurately express their feelings about snow. I propose the need for a few more words to cover the following concepts:
  • Pretty snow on the trees
  • Snow on your driveway that has to be shoveled
  • The three-foot-tall compacted pile of snow, dirt, and rocks blocking the driveway you have just shoveled after the city plows your street
  • A snowstorm that dumps 10 inches of snow on your driveway after you have just finished shoveling the 8 inches of snow from the previous storm
  • Snow as perceived by children when a snow day is declared
  • Snow as perceived by the Department of Public Works at the beginning of winter
  • Snow as perceived by the Department of Public Works halfway through the season when the snow removal budget has already run out
  • Snow piled up on your car
  • Snow that falls in spring and buries the daffodils that have just started blooming
  • The imaginary snow that people from normally snow-free Buenos Aires envision who think it would be really cool to visit Rhode Island in the winter
  • The actual snow that people from normally snow-free Buenos Aires experience that leads them to admit you were right that they should have visited in summer instead
  • A half-inch snowfall in a major metropolitan area where it has not snowed for 89 years, causing the city to grind to a halt and the residents to go endearingly berserk (see photo of Buenos Aires television newscast, winter of 2007: “Breaking news: It’s snowing”)

This is just a start; I’m sure there are a lot of other concepts I haven’t covered. But according to Punxsutawney Phil, we have at least six more weeks of winter, so there will be plenty more opportunities to think about snow.

ITV News. 2009. “US Celebrates Groundhog Day,” Independent Television News (February 3), www.itv.com/News/Articles/US-celebrates-Groundhog-Day-441714330.html.

Mendosa, David. 2005. “Inuit Words for Snow,” Mendosa.com, www.mendosa.com/snow.html.

Pinker, Steven. 1995. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins.

Salit, Richard. 2009. “A Colder, Harsher Winter,” Providence Journal (February 1), www.projo.com/news/content/WINTER_SO_FAR_02-01-09_7ID4ANA_v31.3bce1fa.html#.

No comments: