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Eskimo Perception

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m a huge fan of the Language Log blog and its co-founders, the linguists Mark Liberman at Penn and Geoff Pullum at Edinburgh. Pullum has spent two decades in fierce combat with the myth that Eskimos have twenty-three words (or is it two hundred? or two thousand?) for snow. (See his 1991 essay The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, which follows up on the 1986 work of Linda Martin.) I made brief reference to this in a post three Julys ago on linguistic fact checking, or the lack thereof.

Two Sunday nights ago, I was reading some of the next day’s NYT online when I clicked on the Monday book review and stumbled on the astonishing opening by Emma Brockes to her review of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel:

“The Stranger’s Child,” Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, opens on a scene in Harrow and Wealdstone, a suburb north of London chosen by the author to represent the middle ground, that is the space between the upper and lower orders — or rather, this being England in 1913, between the orders of lower upper middle and upper upper middle.

As Eskimos do with snow, the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife.

Wow! Eskimos have not just a multitude of snow words, but also gradations of snow perceptiveness invisible to the rest of the world.

The thing about those words is, any language has every bit as large a snow vocabulary as the Eskimos. Slippery snow. Grainy snow. Powdery snow. Oh, those aren’t words? Okay, how about slippery-snow, grainy-snow, powdery-snow? The oft-repeated claim is inane. But read Pullum for that.

Speaking of which, I wasted no time sending the latest example of Eskimo snow inanity on to Professor Pullum. A day later, in his characteristic style, he pounced.

If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn’t count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)

I notice that Brockes’ version of the familiar Eskimological claim deals in visual cognition rather than linguistics (though the two are closely intertwined). The usual citation of a surprisingly large (and randomly chosen) number of snow words is absent; instead she actually claims to know about Arctic nomads’ perceptions of gradations that non-Eskimos cannot see. Where does she get this fascinating fact about perceiving the imperceptible?

Apparently, from credulous acceptance of an urban myth that goes back to the writings of an amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Pullum goes on at length, all worth reading, concluding with a blast at the NYT.

A casual unsupported assertion about Inuit people perceiving distinctions to the rest of us are blind? That won’t cause any trouble at the New York Times (which has published several different figures for the number of snow words in “Eskimo”, and has ignored the letters of correction that have been sent). Don’t worry about it: it’s only language and cognition we’re talking about — just make stuff up.

I’ll say this, though. We Pacific Northwesterners perceive gradations of gray invisible to the rest of you. Dark? Rain? Give us more, so we can make our perceptive skills still more powerful.

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Categories: Journalism, Language, Stupidity
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