05 Pullum1991 - tfllklfe 1‘1 Chapter Nineteen The great...

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Unformatted text preview: tfllklfe 1‘1 - Chapter Nineteen The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it beComes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuahty. For instance, the notion that dinosaurs were stupid, slow-moving reptiles that soon died out because they were unsuccessful and couldn't keep up with the industrious mammals is stuck in the public consciousness. It is far too useful to give up. What insult are you going to hurl at some old but powerful idiot or huge but slow-adapting cor- poration if not ’dinosaur't’ The new research disc0veries of the last two decades concerning the intelligenCe, agility, endothermicity, longevity, and evolutionary robustness of the dinosauria have no effect on the use of the term 'dinosaur‘ and its supposed associations; no one wants to hear that the dinosauria dominated the planet with intelligence and adaptive genius for hundreds of millions of years and were far more Successful than mammals have yet shown themselves to be. It is in the scholarly community that we Ought to find a certain im- munity, or at least resistance, to uncritical acceptance of myths, fables, and misinformation. But sadly, the academic profession shows a strong tentlenCy to create stable and self-sustaining but completely false leg- ' ends of its own, and hang on to them grimly, transmitting them from article to article and from textbook to textbook like software viruses spreading between students’ Macintoshes. Stephen 0. Murray has pointed out to me a rather beautifully titled paper by John Shelton Reed, (Jail E. Doss, and Jeanne S. Hurlbert of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: ’Too good to be false: an essay in the folklore of social science’ (Sociological Inquiry 57 (I987), l~ I t). It is about the assertion that the frequency of lynchings in the American South in the early part of this century was positively correlated with the price of cotton, a 'fact' that has frequently been used as a key piece of evi- dence for frustration-aggression theory. Reed et al. show that nearly all ’ l59 It it) Chapter Nineteen the numerous mentions of this ’fact’ state the finding incorrectly, and neglett to cite the works in which real doubt has been cast on whether there is a Iatt there at all. lhere are thousands of further examples, both within and without at adentia; whole books have been published on commonly believed fallacious (non-)knowletlge (e.g. Tom Burnam, Dictionary of Misinfor- mation, (Qt‘owell, New York, I975). In the study of language, one case surpasses all others in its degree of ubiquity, and the present chapter is devoted to it: it is the notion that Eskimos have bucketloads of different words for snow. What I do here is very little more than an extended review and elabo- ration on Laura Martin‘s wonderful American Anthropologist report of (Otto. Laura Martin is professor and chair of the Department of Anthro- pology at the Cleveland State University. She endures calmly the fact that virtually no one listened to her when she first published. lt may be that few will listen to me as I explain in different words to another audience what she pointed out. But the truth is that the Eskimos do not have lots ot different words for snow, and no one who knows anything about Eskimo (or more accurately, about the Inuit and Yupik families of related languages spoken by Eskimos from Siberia to Greenland) has ever said they do. Anyone who insists on simply checking their primary sources will find that they are quite unable to document the alleged tat ts about snow vocabulary (but nobody ever checks, because the truth might not be what the reading public wants to hear). In this chapter, I take a rather more critical stance regarding the role of Benjamin Lee Whorf than Laura Martin did; in fact, I‘m rather cruel to the memory of that fine amateur linguist. Since several readers of this piece when it first appeared (and after it appeared in abridged form in the inaugural issuelof the academic magazine tingua Franca), let me be clear about this. Whorf has a lasting place in the history of linguistics, a place few of us can aspire to. He is basically responsible for opening up our access to an entire language that had previously been inaccessible (the classical form of Mayan that lay behind the Mayan hieroglyphs until Whorf deciphered them); he coined lastineg useful terms (allophone is an example) and introduced intriguing new concepts (the concept of a cryptotype, for instance); and he did impor~ tant academic work almost entirely without having paid positions ‘in the academic world—an uncommon achievement then, and one at- most unheard of now. ' But he wasn’t a god, and his contribution to Eskimo Iexicography looks shoddy to me, so I poke some fun at him in this chapter, just as I am liable to poke fun at anyone who stumbles across my path. Lasting though his place in the history of linguistics may be, Whorf was guilty The grail Eskimo vocabulary hum l6l of his own small part of the amplilication of a piece of misinformation, and deserves his own small share of opprobrium. ProfessOr Martin has seen in writing numbers as high as low hundred (repeat, 400) given as the number of Eskimo words for snow. The four hundred figure came from a piece by a would—be author who admitted (under questioning by a magazine fact-checker) to having no source for the number what- soever. [he nonsense that Whorf unwittingly helped to foster is com— pletely out of control. ' H I “A silly, infuriatineg unscholarly piece, designed to mislead is what one irate but anonymous senior scholar called this chapter when it was first published in NLLT. But this is not correct; rather, what I have written here is a silly, misleadingly unscholarly piece, deSIgned to infuriate. There is a huge difference. If scholars of Boas, Whorf, and other giants of twentietlrcentury language study get angry en0ugh at my flippancy, perhaps they will do some further research on relevant issues (finding out whether Whorf ever did do any informant work With speakers of the Inuit or Yupik languages, for example), and that is fine. I will read with interest whatever is published or sent to me on this topic. So will Professor Laura Martin, who continues to collect any and all citations concerning Eskimo snow terms, however misrnformed or well-informed they may be; her address is: Department of Anthropol— ogy, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio 44 t t 5, USA. Most linguistics departments have an introductiOn-to-language course in which students other than linguistics majors can be exposed to at least something of the mysteries of language and communication: signing apes and dancing bees; wild children and lateralization; logo- graphic writing and the Rosetta Stone; pit and spit; Sir William Jones and Professor Henry Higgins; isoglosscs and Grimm’s Law; Jabber- wocky and colorless green ideas; and of course, without fail, the Eskimos and their multiple words for snow. Few among us, I'm sure, can say with certainty that we never told an awestruck sea of upturned sophomore faces about the multitude of snow descriptors used by these lexically profligatc hyperborcan nomads, about whom so little information is repeated so often to so many. Linguists have been just as active as schoolteachers or general—knowledge columnists in spreading the entrancing story. What a pity the story is unredeemed piftle. ' Anthropologist Laura Martin of Cleveland State Universrty spent some of her research time during the 19805 attempting to slay the IOZ C hit/Her Nineteen constantly changing, self-regenerating myth of Eskimo snow termi— nology, like a Sigourney Weaver lighting alone against the hideous space creature in the movie Alien (a xenomorph, they called it iii the sequel Aliens; nice word). You may recall that the creature seemed to spring up everywhere once it got loose on the spaceship, and was very difficult to kill. Martin presented her paper at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC. in December 1982, atid eventually (after a four-year struggle during which bonehead re— viewers cut a third of the paper, including several interesting quotes) she published an abbreviated version of it in the ‘Research Reports' section of AAA's journal (Martin I986). This ought to have been enough for the news to get out. _ But no, as far as widespread recognition is concerned, Martin la— bored in vain. Never does a month (or in all probability a week) go by without yet another publication of the familiar claim about the wondrous richness of the Eskimo conceptual scheme: hundreds of words for different grades and types of snow, a lexicographical win- ter wonderland, the quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the worldiso differently from us. And the alleged lexical extravagance of the Eskimos comports so well with the many other facets of their polysynthetic perversity: 'rub- bing noses; lending their wives to strangers; eating raw seal blubber; - throwing grandma out to be eaten by polar bears; “We are prepared to believe almost anything about such an unfamiliar and peculiar group", says Martin, in a gentle reminder of our buried racist tendencies. The tale she tells is an embarrassing saga of scholarly sloppiness aitd popular eagerness to embrace exotic facts about other people's languages without seeing the evidence. The fact is that the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax perpetrated by the anthropologi- cal linguistics community on itself. ) The original source is Franz Boas' introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians (l9l I). And all Boas says there, in the context ofa low-key and slightly ill-explained discussion of indepen- dent versus derived terms for things in different languages, is that just as English uses separate roots for a variety of forms of water (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam) that might be formed by derivational morphology from a single root meaning ‘water' in some other language, so Eskimo uses the apparently dis- The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax I63 tinct roots npui ‘snow on the .ground‘, gana ‘falling snow", piqsir- poq ‘drifting snow', and qimiiqstiq ‘a snow drift'. Boas point ts simply that English expresses these notions by phrases tnvolvmg the root snow, but things could have been otherwise, Just as the words for lake, river, etc. could have been formed derivationally or pert- phrastically on the root water. - But with the next twist in the story, the unleashing of the xenomor- phic fable of Eskimo lexicography seems to have become inevitable. What happened was that Benjamin Lee Whorf, Connecticut fire pre: vention inspector and weekend language-fancier, picked up Boas example and used it, vaguely, in his I940 amateur lingmstics article ‘Science and linguistics“, which was published in MIT's promotional magazine Technology Review (Whorf was an alumnus; he had done his BS. in chemical engineering at MIT). Our word snow would seem too inclusive to an Eskimo, our man from the Hartford Fire Insurance Company confidently asserts. With an uncanny perception into the hearts and minds of the hardy Arctic denizens (the more uncanny since Eskimos were not a prominent fea- ture of Hartford's social scene at the time), he avers: We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow-— whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-tncluswe word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on. are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow. (Whorf I940; in Carroll I956. 2l6) Whorf's article was quoted and reprinted in more subsequent books than you could shake a flamethrower at; the creature was already loose and regenerating itself all over the ship. Notice that Whorf's statement has illicitly inflated Boas‘ four terms to at least seven (l: "falling", 2: “on the ground", 3: “packed hard", 4: “slushy, 5: “flying”. 6, 7, . . . : “and other kinds of snow"). Notice also that his claims about English speakers are false; I recall the stuff in question being called snow when fluffy and white, slush when partly melted, sleet when falling in a half-melted state, and a blizzard when pelting down hard enough to make driving dan- gerous. Whorf's remark about his own speech community ts no more reliable than his glib generalizations about what things are “sensu- ously and operationally different" to the generic Eskimo. loJ Chapter N inetem But the lack of little things like verisimilitude and substantiation are not enough to stop a myth. Martin tracks the great Eskimo vo- cabulary hoax through successively more careless repetitions and embroiderings in a number of popular books on language. Roger llrown's Words and Things ( I958, 234—36), attributing the example to Wliorl', provides an early example of careless popularization and perversion of the issue. llis numbers disagree with both Boas and Whorf [he says'there are “three Eskimo words for snow", apparently getting this from ligure I0 in Whorf's paper; perhaps he only looked at the pictures).' . After works like Brown's have picked up Whorf's second—hand iiiisrecollection of Boas to generate third-hand accounts. we begin to get fourth—hand accounts carelessly based on Brown. For example, Martin notes that in Carol Eastman’s Aspens of Language and Cul- iurc (I975; 3rd printing, I980), the familiar assertion that "Eskimo languages have many words for snow" is found only six lines away from a direct quote of Brown's reference to “three” words for snow. But never mind: three, four, seven, who cares? It's a bunch, right? When more popular sources start to get hold of the example, all con- straints are removed: arbitrary numbers are just made up as the writer thinks appropriate for the readership. ln Lanford Wilson's 1978 play The Fifth ofJuIy it is "fifty". From I984 alone (two years after her I982 presentation to the American Anthropological Association meetings on the subject—not that mere announcement at a scholarly nteeting could have been expected to change anything), Martin cites the number of Eskimo snow terms given as “nine” (in a trivia ency- clopedia, Adams I984), “one hundred" (in a New York Times edito- rial on February 9), and “two hundred" (in a Cleveland TV weather forecast). ‘ ) ’ By coincidence, I happened to notice, the New York Times re- turned to the topic four years to the day after committing itself to the I. Murray (I‘M?) has argued that Martin is too harsh on some people, particularly llruwn, who does correctly see that some English speakers also differentiate their snow terms [skiers talk of powder. crust. and slush). But Martin is surely correct in criticizing Brown for citing no data at all, and for making points about lexical struc- ture. perception, and Zipl": Law that are rendered nonsense by the actual nature of Eskimo word stmcture this reference to “length of ii verbal expression" providing "an index of its frequency in speech" fails to take account of the fact that even with a single root for snow, the number of actual word forms for snow in Eskimo will be eti'ectivuly infinite, and the frequency of each one approximately zero, because of the polysytillielie morphology). The great Eskimo vor‘tibnlury horur l65 figure of one hundred: on February 9, l988, on page 2|, in the ‘Sci- ence Times' section, a piece by Jane E. Brody on laboratory research into snowflake formation began: “The Eskimos have about four dozen words to describe snow and ice, and Sam Colbeck knows why." The New York Times, America's closest approach to a serious newspaper of record, had changed its position on the snow-term count by over 50% within four years. And in the science section. But hey: nine, forty-eight, a hundred, two hundred, who cares? It's a bunch, right? On this topic, no source can be trusted. People cannot be persuaded to shut up about it, either. Attempting to slay the creature at least in my locality, I mentioned Martin's work in a public lecture in Santa Cruz in I985, in the presence 0 "a number of faculty, students, and members of the general public. I drove home the point about scholarly irresponsibility to an attentive crowd, and imagined I had put at least a temporary halt to careless talk about the Eskimo niorphenie stock within Santa Cruz County. But it was not to be. Within the following three months, two undergraduate students came to me to say that they had been told in class lectures about the Eskimo’s highly ratnilied snow vocabulary, one in politics, one in psychology; my son told me he had been fed the same factoid in class at his junior high school; and the assertion turned up once again in a “fascinating facts" column in a Santa Cruz weekly paper. Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmis- sion and elaboration of a false claim is that even if there were a large number of roots for different snow types in some Arctic language, this would not, objectively, be intellectually interesting; it would be a most mundane and unremarkable fact. llorsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of mauve; printers have many different names for different fonts (Caslon, Garamond, llclvetica, Times Roman, and so on), naturally enough. If these obviOus truths of specialization are supposed to be interesting facts about language. thought, and cul- ture, then l'iii sorry, but include me out. Would anyone think of writing about printers the same kind of slop we find written about Eskimos in bad linguistics textbooks? Take a random textbofik like Paul Gaeng's Introduction to the Prin- ciples othmgimge ( l97l), with its earnest assertion: "It is quite ob- vious that in the culture of the Eskimos . . . snow is of great enough ..__...~.~.-- .- .- .‘m M».-...___-__ -.:‘E:‘. 2"" - - _, —.-_ _..&_,—.n loo Chapter Nineteen importance to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one wotd and one thought in English into several distinct classes . . (p. I37). Imagine reading: “It is quite obvious that in the culture of printers . . . fonts are of great enough importance to split up the con- ceptual sphere that corresponds to one word and one tltought among non-printers into several distinct classes. . . ." Utterly boring, even if true. Only the link to those legendary, promiscuous, blubber- gnawing hunters of the ice-packs could permit something this trite to be presented to us for contemplation. And actually, when you come to think of it, Eskimos aren't really that likely to be interested in snow. Snow in the traditional Eskimo hunter's life ntust be a kind of constantly assumed background, like sand on the beach. And even beach bums have only one word for sand. But there you are: the tnore you think about the Eskimo vo- cabulary hoax, the more stupid it gets. The final words of Laura Martin's paper are about her hope that we can come to see the Eskimo snow story as a cautionary tale remind- ing us of “the intellectual protection to be found in the careful use of sources, the clear presentation of evidence, and above all, the con~ slant evaluation of our assumptions." Amen to that. The prevalence of the great Eskimo snow hoax is testimony to falling standards in aca- demia, but also to a wider tendency (particularly in the United States, I'tn afraid) toward fundamentally anti-intellectual “gee-whiz" modes of discourse and increasing ignorance of scientific t...
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