Angry 3-am-blogging, “Eskimo words for snow” edition.

(Why do I always get so short-tempered when I can’t sleep? I do my angriest blogging when I’m browsing the intertubes in the wee hours of the morning.)

But on to my main point:


“Eskimos have a gajillion words for snow!” Folks, this is a BLATANT LIE. It is not hard to research! When I first heard it, I thought, “Really? That seems like an awful lot.” and I spent five minutes on Google and I found this site and that was that. That’s all it took! Some internets, and not taking absurd statements at face value.

How you can tell this is an absurd statement: just as there is no “American Indian” language, there really isn’t an “Eskimo” language. (There is a “language group” common among many Inuit groups, but no monolithic language.) As far as I know, there isn’t even a group identifying as “Eskimo.” All the First Nations people I’ve met have identified as Inuit (probably because I met them in an Inuit art store– gorgeous carvings!) but there are many tribes, and they are not all the same. Just like all Native American tribes are not the same (and often hate each other), and all African tribes are not the same (and often hate each other) and all Asian countries are not the same (and often hate each other)…seriously, would you accept the factoid that “Asians have a zillion words for rice”? Or “White people have a zillion words for pie”? Then why don’t you question “Eskimos have a zillion words for snow”???

How you can reveal the stupidity of the question: just ask, “How do you define a word for snow?” Basically, the crux of the issue here is that in this language group, it’s possible, by stacking all sorts of wonderfully complex prefixes and suffixes, to take the root “quani-” (for snowflake) and make the single word “They were wandering around gathering lots of stuff that looked like snowflakes.” We’re calling that a “word for snow” now? Also note that this is applicable to every other word in their vocabulary.

I’m going to use the big, scary word RACISM here and declare that the perpetuation of this myth is RACIST. It’s probably unconscious racism, but as Jay Smooth says, even if I don’t have enough evidence to say “you are racist” I can definitely say “that thing you said was racist” and if you’re passing off this “fact” to others without doing your research, well, guess what…that thing you said was racist.

Here’s why: it oversimplifies many groups into the nonexistent monolithic entity “Eskimos,” erases an interesting aspect that their languages have in common, instead playing off the most basic stereotypes of their culture, to perpetuate the idea that their lives are dominated by this one aspect (well, this and igloos. The two aspects are snow and igloos. And ice-fishing. The three aspects are, snow, igloos, ice fishing, and penguins. Among the aspects are such sterotypes as…you get the picture. It seems I also get distractable and silly late at night.)

It produces a caricature of Inuit language groups that is unflattering and untrue.

Would you have any doubt that “Asians have a bajillion words for rice” was a racist thing to say? The same applies here.

Please, when you hear these lies spread, tell people to just do their research.


3 Responses to Angry 3-am-blogging, “Eskimo words for snow” edition.

  1. dollyann says:

    This is SO interesting for me to read because just last year in my sociology class my professor said, “Did you know the eskimos have 7 words for snow?” So, it’s a myth that even perpetuates among the highly educated (though, this was also the same man who said it was time for black people to get over slavery and move on). You really have to understand the mechanisms of a language before you can go and spout facts like that. Thanks for the link!

  2. eloriane says:

    It pops up in all kinds of places where you’d expect people to have done their research. I read a book recently that was basically a history of the English language, which was lots of fun and presumably required a lot of research, but this stupid factoid popped up in the middle of the introduction and cast doubt upon the whole thing for me.

    The thing is, you have to know something about the mechanics of the language to rebut the statement. So I can kind of understand why it winds its way into conversation– all urban legends get repeated as if they were true; that’s what makes them urban legends. What continues to surprise and confuse me is the way they this “fact” weasels its way into otherwise well-researched materials about language, especially printed materials! No other urban legends get so gleefully passed on in print, I don’t think. Seriously, what happened to citations? Do these people not have editors?

  3. […] think there are a billion Eskimo words for snow? Let me google that for […]

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