The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax

Here are some excerpts from Geoffrey Pullman's excellent essay, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Pullman makes an important point about his essay: "the [essay] isn't about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I'm sure it will be taken to be. What it's actually about is intellectual sloth."
Geoffrey Pullman (1991): "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverant Essays on the Study of Language." Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p. 166-9

Eskimo Words for 'Snow'
Some time in the future, and it may be soon, you will be told by someone that Eskimos have many or dozens or scores or hundreds of words for snow. You, gentle reader, must decide here and now whether you are going to let them get away with it. . . . 
The last time it happened (other than through the medium of print) was in July 1988 at the University of California's Irvine campus, where I was attending the university's annual Management Institute. Not just one lecturer but two of them somehow (don't ask me how) worked the Eskimological falsehood into their tediuous presentations on management psychology and administrative problem-solving. The first time I attempted to demur and was glared at by lecturer and classmates alike; the second time, discretion for once getting the upper hand over valor, I just held my face in my hands for a minute, then quietly closed my binder and crept out of the room.
Don't be a coward like me. Stand up and tell the speaker this: C.W. Schult-Lorentzen's Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (1927) gives just two possible relevant roots: qanik, meaning 'snow in the air', or 'snowflake', and aput, meaning 'snow on the ground'. Then add that you would be interested to know if the speaker can cite any more.
This will not make you the most popular person in the room. It will have an effect roughly comparable to pouring fifty gallons of thick oatmeal into a harpsichord during a baroque recital. But it will strike a blow for truth, responsibility, and standards of evidence in linguistics.
 Yes, But How Many, Really?
[T]o tackle this question we must, however reluctantly, move from our armchair, at least as far as the phone or the computer mail terminal. I contacted the best Eskimologist I was personally acquainted with, namely Anthony Woodbury of the University of Texas at Austin, and asked him.
 . . . When you pose a question as ill-defined as "How many Eskimo words for snow are there?" Woodbury observes, you run into major problems not just determining the answer to the apparently empirical "How many" part but with the other parts: how to interpret the terms "Eskimo", "words", and "for snow". All of them are problematic." 
The languages that the Eskimo people speak around the top of the world, in places as far apart as Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, differ quite a lot in details of vocabulary. The differences between urbanized and nomadic Eskimos and between young and old speakers are also considerable. So one problem lies in getting down to a the level of specific lists of words that can be verified as genuine by a particular speaker of a particular dialect, and getting away from the notion of a single truth about a monolithic "Eskimo" language.
Then one needs to get clear about what one proposes to count when one counts "words". Even in English, the distinction between internally unanalyzable roots (like snow and slush) on the one hand and inflected word forms of nouns on the other is worth noting. Snow is one word, but it is easy to generate another dozen directly from it, simply by applying inflectional and derivational morphological rules to the root: snowball, snowbank, snowcapped, snowdrift, snowflakje, snowlike, snows, snowshoe, snowstorm,. snowy . . .You get the picture.
Now, this may not seem like too wild a profusion of derived words. But in the Eskimo languages there is a good deal more inflection (grammatical endings) and vastly more fully productive derivational morphology (word formation). For each noun stem there are about 280 different inflectional forms. And then if you start adding in all the frims derivable by word formation processes that yield other parts of speech (illustrated in a rudimentary way by English to snow, snowed, snowing, snowier, snowiest, etc.) you get an even bigger collection -- indeed, an infinite collection, because there really is no such thing as the longest word in a language of the Eskimo type where words of arbitrary complexity can be derived.
So if you identify four snow-related noun stems in some Eskimo dialect, what do you report? Four? Or the number of actual inflected noun forms derivable therefrom, certainly over a thousand? Or the entire set, perhaps infinite, of relatable words of all parts of speech?
Finally, Woodbury points out that there is a real issue about what is a word for snow as opposed to a word for something else. . . . . Take the form igluksak, which turned up (misspelled) on a list of twenty alleged words for snow in a Canadian Inuit dialect that was sent to me by Edith Moravcsik of the University of Wisconsin, who got it from a correspondent of hers, who got it from a minister of religion, who got it from some Inuit people in the Kewatin region among whom he had worked as a missionary. Igluksak was glossed 'snow for igloo making' on the list. But Woodbury points out that the word is a productive formation from iglu 'house' and -ksaq 'material for'; in other words, it means simply 'house-building material'. In Woodebury's view, this would probably include plywood, nails, perhaps bricks or roofing tiles. Igluksak isn't a word for a special kind of snow at all.
 . . . If it will allow you to rest easier at night, or to be more of an authority at cocktail parties, let it be known that Professor Anthony Woodbury (Department of Linguistics, Universioy of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712) is prepared to endorse the claim that the central Alskan Yupik Eskimo language has a bout a dozen words (even a couple of dozen if you are afilry liberal about what you count) for referring to snow and related natural phenomena, events, or behavior.

Counting Eskimo Words for Snow: A Citizen's Guide
When  Pullum's book came out, Woodbury reports that he started getting quite a number of inquiries from journalists about "words for 'snow' in Eskimo." As a result he prepared the following list.
Anthony C. Woodbury, University of Texas at Austin, July 1991. Memo circulated by listserver since 1991.
This is a list of lexemes referring to snow and related notions in one Eskimo language, Central Alaskan Yupik (or just Yup'ik Eskimo). It is spoken by about 13,000 people in the coast and river areas of Southwestern Alaska from Norton Sound to Bristol Bay. It is one of five Eskimo languages. (Of these five, probably the best-known is Inuit, spoken in a series of well- differentiated dialects ranging from Northern Alaska, all across the Canadian far north, and up to the coast of Greenland. While the term Inuit is preferred to Eskimo by many in Canada, the term is retained here because (a) it properly refers to any Eskimo group, not only the Inuit; and (b) its use is widespread in Native communities in Alaska.)
This is a list of lexemes rather than of words. Roughly, a lexeme can be thought of as an independent vocabulary item or dictionary entry. It's different from a word since a lexeme can give rise to more than one distinctly inflected word. Thus English has a single lexeme speak which gives rise to inflected forms like speaks, spoke, and spoken. It's especially important to count lexemes rather than words when talking about Eskimo languages. That's because they are inflectionally so complicated that each single noun lexeme may have about 280 distinct inflected forms, while each verb lexeme may have over 1000! Obviously, that would put the number of snow words through the roof very quickly.
The list is organized according to lexeme *meanings*. Perhaps somewhat arbitrarily I have counted fifteen of them, placing within each of them noun and/or verb lexemes having the same basic sense. And perhaps even more arbitrarily, I've grouped these fifteen meanings into four larger sets. But the most arbitrary decision of all is left to the discretion of the reader--the decision of how to count the lexemes themselves. Here are some of the problems you face:
(a) Are all fifteen lexeme meanings really 'snow'-meanings? That is, do words with these meanings really count for you as words for snow?[2]
(b) There are some synonyms present--alternative lexemes with the same meaning, like garbage vs. trash in English. Are you going to count them separately, or together?
(c) If you decided to count synonyms together, will you also count together both of the members of noun-verb pairs having basically the same meaning? (The members are, technically speaking, separate lexemes since partly idiosyncratic morphological changes mark the verbal forms, and must therefore be listed separately in any truly informative dictionary, as indeed Jacobson's dictionary does.)
(d) Following Jacobson, I've specially labelled those lexemes that only occur in a small subpart of the Central Alaskan Yupik-speaking region. Are you going to try to make counts for each separate dialect? If yes, you will wonder if you really have enough information to do so. (You're not alone in this-such information is difficult to compile, whether or not you are a linguist, and also whether or not you are a native speaker of a language.)[3]

Eskimo Snow Lexemes

A. Snow particles

(1) Snowflake
qanuk 'snowflake'
qanir- 'to snow
qanunge- 'to snow' [NUN]

          qanugglir- 'to snow' [NUN]

(2) Frost
          kaneq 'frost'
          kaner- 'be frosty/frost sth.'

(3) Fine snow/rain particles
          kanevvluk 'fine snow/rain  particles
          kanevcir- to get fine snow/rain particles

(4) Drifting particles

natquik 'drifting snow/etc'

          natqu(v)igte- 'for snow/etc. to drift along ground'

(5) Clinging particles

nevluk 'clinging debris/

          nevlugte- 'have clinging debris/...'lint/snow/dirt...'

B. Fallen snow

(6) Fallen snow on the ground
aniu [NS] 'snow on ground'
aniu- [NS] 'get snow on ground'
apun [NS] 'snow on ground'
qanikcaq 'snow on ground'
qanikcir- 'get snow on ground'
(7) Soft, deep fallen snow on the ground
muruaneq 'soft deep snow'
(8) Crust on fallen snow
qetrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
qerretrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
(9) Fresh fallen snow on the ground
nutaryuk 'fresh snow' [HBC]
(10) Fallen snow floating on water
qanisqineq 'snow floating on water'

C. Snow formations

(11) Snow bank
qengaruk 'snow bank' [Y, HBC]
(12) Snow block
utvak 'snow carved in block'
(13) Snow cornice
navcaq [NSU] 'snow cornice, snow (formation) about to collapse'

navcite- 'get caught in an avalanche'

D. Meterological events

(14) Blizzard, snowstorm
pirta 'blizzard, snowstorm'
pircir- 'to blizzard'
pirtuk 'blizzard, snowstorm'
(15) Severe blizzard
cellallir-, cellarrlir- 'to snow heavily'
pir(e)t(e)pag- 'to blizzard severely'

pirrelvag- 'to blizzard severely'

An unordered list of English snow lexemes

blowing snow
ice lens
igloo (Inuit iglu 'house')
pingo (Inuit pingu(q) 'ice lens')
snow bank
snow cornice
snow fort
snow house
snow man


2. The indeterminacy and difficulty of this question is due to the fact that words don't merely match pre-existing things in the world. Rather, they shape and encapsulate ideas about things--how they are categorized (compare dog vs. canine), how we are interacting with them (compare sheep vs. mutton), how the word functions grammatically (compare the noun cow vs. the adjective bovine), and how we wish to represent our attitudes about them (compare critter vs. varmint). It was in connection with this point that discussion of Eskimo words for snow first arose (in the writings of two major 20th Century anthropological linguists, Franz Boas and Benjamin Lee Whorf). Unfortunately, their point has been pretty much missed by those who insist on counting.

3. Here are the dialect area abbreviations used:

NS Norton Sound dialect
NSU Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect
HBC Hooper Bay-Chevak
Y Yukon River area subdialect of General Central Alaskan Yupik dialect
NUN Nunivak

Steven Landsburg, in his essay "Too True to be Good", argues that, to evaluate the reliability of a theory, you "trust your instincts: . . . .A Harvard professor is more credible than a Dartmouth dishwasher." Pullman has relied heavily on the credibility of Professor Woodbury. Are you satisfied with Pullman's approach? How much of an expert is Woodbury?