"Pure" Inuit language, and bucking the snow-word trend

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The Guardian has an article today entitled, "Linguist on mission to save Inuit 'fossil language' disappearing with the ice," about a forthcoming research trip by University of Cambridge linguist Stephen Pax Leonard to study Inuktun, an endangered Polar Inuit language spoken by the Inughuit community of northwest Greenland.

It's always great to see this kind of coverage for anthropological linguistics, and the article is worth a read — though I'm a bit suspicious of the claim that Inuktun "is regarded as something of a linguistic 'fossil' and one of the oldest and most 'pure' Inuit dialects." Regarded by whom? The scare quotes (or claim quotes) around "fossil" and "pure" fail to indicate whose notion of ethnolinguistic purity is at play here. (The "language" vs. "dialect" confusion throughout the article doesn't help, either.)

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the news article is what it doesn't include. From the Guardian Style Guide's Twitter feed:

We have managed to carry a story on Inuit language without the cliche "number of words for snow". Well done Mark Brown.

Well done, indeed. Once again, it's good to know that our perpetual gripes about the snow-word myth are not just empty howls echoing across the tundra.


  1. Rubrick said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    That headline almost qualifies as a crash blossom; a reading ignoring meaning cues would have the linguist disappearing with the ice. Ah, the cycles headline writers cost our mental parsers just because they hate the word "is" (the writers, that is, not the parsers… oh, never mind).

  2. Peter said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    I can't see a way for the word "is" to make that headline clearer (in the intended reading) without the addition of "that" or "which" as well.

  3. Daniel H said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 7:51 pm


    "Linguist [is] on mission to save Inuit 'fossil language' disappearing with the ice,"

  4. TS said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    "just empty howls echoing across the tundra .."

    But which one? Inuit has words to distinguish between dozens of types of tundra. At least that is what I heard.

  5. Bobbie said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    The Inuit have X words for howls…

  6. Kylopod said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    Some urban legends have been so thoroughly debunked that almost nobody believes in them anymore: the most notable example is the sewer gators. Perhaps the Eskimo words for snow will eventually meet a similar fate. I imagine the press will have to quit referencing it, but it will also have to stop being used in jokes. Here is a passage from Douglas Adams's So Long and Thanks for All the Fish:

    "He had read somewhere that Eskimos had over two hundred different words for snow, without which their conversation would probably have got very monotonous. So they would distinguish between thin snow and thick snow, light snow and heavy snow, sludgy snow, brittle snow, snow that came in flurries, snow that came in drifts, snow that came in on the bottom of your neighbor’s boots all over your nice clean igloo floor, the snows of winter, the snows of spring, the snows you remember from your childhood that were so much better than any of your modern snow, fine snow, feathery snow, hill snow, valley snow, snow that falls in the morning, snow that falls at night, snow that falls all of a sudden just when you were going out fishing, and snow that despite all your efforts to train them, the huskies have pissed on."

    I have no idea if Adams himself believed in the snow myth, but even if he didn't, he helped perpetuate it. The average reader tunes out the fact that it's only fiction, and humorous fiction at that, and tends to assume that the joke is starting with a reality-based premise. An urban legend is still alive and well if it's being used in a joke, because there will always be people who take it at face value.

  7. Michael Ashley said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    Wow, an urban legend. I really believed 200 words for snow plausible.

  8. Xmun said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    Why didn't Douglas Adams include the snows of yesteryear? Indeed, où sont les neiges d'antan?

  9. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    I doubt if there's much of an echo on the Tundra.

  10. Jayarava said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 3:56 am

    The English have 200 words for rain…

  11. Mcur said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 4:02 am

    I took a Linguistics 101 paper last semester that had "Inuit words for snow" as an example in the printed lecture notes. I would have laughed, but it was too sad.

  12. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    This reminds me of a story I just saw on the Beeb site:


    "The death of the woman, Boa Senior, was highly significant because one of the world's oldest languages, Bo, had come to an end, Professor Anvita Abbi said."

    I've always had difficulty with the sort of statements about language like that one and the 'fossil' claim in the Grauniad. Do they think that the languages didn't change since whenever?

  13. aqilluqqaaq said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    “Arguably the concept is the same in both languages.”

    The rhetorical abuse of the terms ‘same’ and ‘concept’ on the part of debunkers strikes me as far more egregious than any abuse of the Eskimo lexicon on the part of those being debunked. The latter merely mistake the facts; the former misconceive them.

  14. SeanH said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Richard, that seems to be a fair summary of what Prof. Abbi said:

    "It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times," Professor Abbi said.

    It looks like your dispute might be with Professor Abbi rather than with the BBC.

  15. Peter Howard said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    I've always had difficulty with the sort of statements about language like that one and the 'fossil' claim in the Grauniad. Do they think that the languages didn't change since whenever?

    I don't have a difficulty with this.

    a) Every language has one natural form, and any deviation from this is an abberation, right? Lots of people believe this.

    b) Inuit people and those who live on Indian islands are closer to nature than the rest of us, who have lost touch with natural wisdom.

    c) Therefore, such people will not allow their language to be corrupted and it will remain pure and unsullied.


    (I perhaps should make it clear that I am well aware that both the premises and logic of the foregoing are completely barmy. I'm only suggesting that it would be possible to draw a conclusion like this if you didn't think too hard about it.)

  16. Kylopod said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    Here is another instance I found of the legend, in a 1993 edition of Compton's Encyclopedia, under the topic of "Language":

    "Languages have different ways of separating meaning. Eskimo has separate words for falling snow, snow on the ground, etc. English has only one: snow. Shona, a language of Zimbabwe, has three words for all the colors. One word means 'red, purple, orange.' Another means 'white, yellow, green.'"

    The article previously mentions that Eskimo (that's what it calls the language) is the sort of language that packs into a single word what in English would be many words.

  17. Cameron said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    I noted the line about the linguist in question flying to Copenhagen because "it's the only place you can buy a Greenlandic-Danish dictionary". Are we to believe that none of the booksellers of Copenhagen could manage to ship a book to Cambridge?

  18. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    @ Cameron
    Actually they have to smuggle them out using mules who've swallowed them wrapped in (I believe) condoms.

  19. John said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    Surely if you're talking about a synthetic language, it's perfectly possible they do have lots of "words" (in the sense an English speaker would understand it) for snow. They'd have thinsnow and thicksnow, lightsnow and heavysnow, sludgysnow, brittlesnow, snow-that-came-in-flurries, snow-that-came-in-drifts, etc.

  20. aqilluqqaaq said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    It’s more than just synthesis, incorporation, agglutination – in two ways. On the one hand, the comparative number of words with unrelated roots in the two languages. On the other hand, the idea that two languages express the ‘same concepts’ in different grammatical structures – as if concepts existed prior to and independently of the grammatical structures which identify them.

  21. Faldone said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    This whole Eskimo snow thing got started, I believe, when Franz Boaz wrote that the Eskimos had four (count them, 4) words for snow. After that it just snowba, umm, grew.

  22. Faldone said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    Of course, the stirkeout that showed up quite nicely in preview got totally disappeared in the final product.

  23. ignoramus said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    sigh ! another snow job eh!

  24. Rick said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    By "pure" I would think thet mean "uncontaminated by English, French, Danish, or whatever "foreign" language that other, "less pure" dialects have been in contact (and thus "corrupted") with.

    Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_snow ) says English has 23 different terms (or 24, or 25, if you count synonyms) for " for "snow". And, if you want to exclude multi-word terms (like "artificial snow" and "surface hoar") and the obviously compound word ("snowdrift"), English has 11 words for snow. I don't see why the Eskimos should have a language less percise in this area than English speaking snowboarders.

  25. Pekka said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    There is an uncommon variant of the snow words myth that instead claims Inuits have a multitude of words for shades of white. Here is one example from Google books.

    (End of second section. Also talks about Arabic words for various shades of sand!)


  26. David Walker said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    What about snow falling on cedars? Is there a word for that?

  27. Bill Walderman said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    "Are we to believe that none of the booksellers of Copenhagen could manage to ship a book to Cambridge?"

    If you look into shipping charges by Danish booksellers, it's apparent that it's cheaper to fly to Copenhagen and back first class from Cambridge, England or even Cambridge, Mass., than to have the book shipped. (I think it's due not to the booksellers themselves, but to the charges imposed by the Danish Postal Service.)

  28. Bill Walderman said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    Anyway, you almost certainly have to go by way of Copenhagen to get to Greenland from England.

  29. James C. said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    Although I don’t do historical linguistics on the Eskimo-Aleut family, I do some on the neighboring Na-Dene family and hence have more than passing knowledge about Eskimo-Aleut. I want to debunk a claim in the article, which is (hopefully) twisted from something reasonable said by the researcher: “Inuktun is regarded as something of a linguistic ‘fossil’ and one of the oldest and most ‘pure’ Inuit dialects.”

    The center of diversity for the Eskimo-Aleut languages is in Western Alaska and the opposite shores of Siberia. Aleut is the most divergent in the family, followed by the various flavors of Yupʼik including Siberian Yupʼik, Sirenik, and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq. The Inuit languages stretch from northern Alaska (Iñupiaq) to Greenland (Greenlandic, including Kalaallisut and Inuktun). The easternmost languages are the most innovative, and both the archaeological record and oral history indicate that migration was from west to east. So historically speaking, Inuktun is about as far from a “fossil” as one can get, and is instead more “new” than say Yupʼik or Aleut. It cannot be “old” at all, since people have only been there since the 1200s at the earliest.

    Purity is of course a completely different matter. The only common factual measure of linguistic purity that I know of is the amount of borrowing in a language versus indigenous vocabulary in comparison with the same situation in related languages, ideally neighboring ones. (One can measure other sorts of language contact effects in e.g. phonology, but this is not as frequently done.) It’s hard to say whether Inuktun has more borrowings in it than Kalaallisut, or even Iñupiaq in Alaska. The Wikipedia article sounds reasonable in its statement that Inuktun speakers all know Kalaallisut, and that many know Danish and some know English. If you really want a puzzle, working out borrowings between two very closely related languages like Inuktun and Kalaallisut could be a dissertation topic.

    It’s unfortunate that people can’t document a language just because it’s inherently valuable. Instead there’s all this nonsense about purity, archaism, and all the other crap left over from “noble savage” theory. I’m fine with talking about the merits of studying a different way of thinking, because the categories in a language really do affect the habitual ways we think (i.e. weak Whorfianism), and it is really sometimes astonishing to discover how different people divide up human experience. But propping up discourse with 19th century intellectual racist garbage is doing nobody any good at all.

  30. John Cowan said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    James C.: I would guess that what the researcher meant to imply was the commonplace observation that peripheral language varieties tend to be more conservative than central ones. Though I have no information about it, Inuktun may well be somewhat fossilized, somewhat closer to Proto-Inuit (clearly not Proto-Eskimo-Aleut!) in some ways than its nearest relatives are. In the same way, American English, which began as a peripheral dialect, is somewhat fossilized in parts of its phonology and lexis (while being quite "advanced" in other parts).

    In addition, there is a particular merit in the study of outlier varieties that has nothing to do with noble savagery. Our picture of Proto-Turkic and Proto-Oceanic, to pick two at random, would be quite different and much less accurate if we did not know the outliers, Chuvash and the languages of the islands off New Guinea respectively.

  31. David Green said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

    I notice that Adams distinguishes very nicely (in English) between those various types of snow.

  32. D. Sky Onosson said,

    August 14, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    John Cowan: I've heard the suggestion that "peripheral language varieties tend to be more conservative than central ones" many times, and even repeated such sentiments myself. But on thinking about it now I have wonder, how much evidence is there for this? Or is it, too, another language myth?

  33. Ken Brown said,

    August 14, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Er, that Douglas Adams quote *is* a debunking of the Eskimosnow idea.

  34. Kylopod said,

    August 14, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    Er, that Douglas Adams quote *is* a debunking of the Eskimosnow idea.

    I don't think so. He's poking fun at the idea and exaggerating it, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't believe in some version of the legend himself. I suspect, given his scientific background, that he knew it was a load of igloo poo, but you can't tell from this one quote. My point was that urban legends live on through humor, and that whatever Adams's intentions, he helped perpetuate the legend. (I read the book as a teenager, and it may have been my first exposure to this legend, which I accepted as fact for some time.)

    I confess to being guilty of this practice myself. I enjoy telling some apocryphal stories, like the one about Winston Churchill and the ugly lady, or his quip about the preposition rule "up with which I shall not put." I always make a point of saying these are just stories, not necessarily real events, but I know that by telling them, I help them live on.

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