Tuesday, March 26

Inuit words for snow and the ‘Whorfian renaissance’

The Inuit are said to have hundreds of words for snow. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist, mentioned in the 1930s that there were seven; since then, the count has shot up. J.R. Minkel writes that there are no more basic Inuit words for snow than there are English (cf. sleet, slush, powder, flurry, blizzard, hail, hardpack, etc). The myth of multiple words for snow in the Inuit language arises because the language combines adjectives and nouns into new terms (e.g. ‘snow that’s been peed on’). All it means is that you can say a lot of things about snow.

Whorf argued that language affects thought. But ‘Whorfian effects’ were hard to substantiate, and by the 1970s the consensus among psychologists was that linguistic and perceptual distinctions are mutually independent. Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that human languages, however varied, all share a basic structure that seems to be a matter of normal brain function.

In the early 1990s, opinion swung back in favour of Whorf’s theories. Lera Boroditsky’s research showed, for example, that speakers of German and Spanish (both languages with noun gender), shown pictures of objects, rated the objects more similar on a scale of one to four to inherently feminine words (e.g. ‘girl’ and ‘ballerina’) if the objects were grammatically feminine in their native language. Conversely, they associated the objects more with essentially masculine words if the object names were masculine in their own languages.

But the jury is still out. Some researchers argue that the effects of language on cognition are trivial. Lila Gleitman of the University of Pennsylvania has found that speakers of languages with different ways of describing space and movement seem to think alike ‘if given the chance or the right cue’.

Sources: ‘A Way with Words’ (http://www.scientificamerican.com/explorations/2002/032502language/) and ‘Snow, by Any Other Name (http://www.scientificamerican.com/explorations/2002/032502language/snow.html) by J.R. Minkel.

See also Mark Halpern's article 'Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage' at http://www.vocabula.com/vrSEPT00Halpern.htm. He refers to 'The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax', but also quotes a letter from someone in the know, which appeared on page 8 of New York magazine for 13 June 1994:

'In the "Fast Track" piece "The Very, Very Tiresome Season of Storms" [by Steven J. Dubner, February 28], Dr. Steven Pinker of MIT is quoted as saying that Eskimos don't really have hundreds of different words for snow. He states, "They have exactly as many or perhaps two or three more words than English speakers." I have spent the past 22 years living in an Inupiat Eskimo community. According to the North Slope Borough's Inupiat History, Language, and Culture division, the Inupiats have more than 30 words for snow, and more than 70 for ice. In the Arctic, the specific conditions of snow and ice are critical to hunting and survival; two or three words would hardly cover our needs.'

Elise Sereni Patkotak
Public Information Officer
North Slope Borough
Barrow, Alaska