The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax is anthropology's contribution to urban legends. It apparently started in 1911 when anthropologist Franz Boaz casually mentioned that the Inuit—he called them "Eskimos," using the derogatory term of a tribe to the south of them for eaters of raw meat—had four different words for snow. With each succeeding reference in textbooks and the popular press the number grew to sometimes as many as 400 words.
In fact, "Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English," according to linguist Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct. "Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen."
Here is my exchange of correspondence with Professor Pinker on the subject:
Thank you so much for your book, The Language Instinct. It's what I am always looking for—something stimulating and a good read at the same time. I'm glad that every time I went to the library it was checked out so when I found the HarperPerennial edition of it at a bookstore recently I snatched it up.
I especially love to read about hoaxes, or what I usually call urban myths. So when I read your debunking of the 400 or so Eskimo words for snow I was delighted.
Imagine my surprise when I read one of the better on-line ezines, Word, the next day and found the article "The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow" by someone named Phil James. I attach the text of the article. What do you think about it? Is this just a continuation of the hoax?
Professor Pinker replied:
Thanks for sending the list—it's hilarious....it is a work of a witty satirist. Indeed, it makes a serious point—some of the entries on the serious lists of Eskimo snow words are as dubious as "wa-ter" meaning melted snow "tlan-na-na" for oldie snow on the radio.
The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow
by Phil James
tlapa powder snow tlacringit snow that is crusted on the surface kayi drifting snow tlapat still snow klin remembered snow naklin forgotten snow tlamo snow that falls in large wet flakes tlatim snow that falls in small flakes tlaslo snow that falls slowly tlapinti snow that falls quickly kripya snow that has melted and refrozen tliyel snow that has been marked by wolves tliyelin snow that has been marked by Eskimos blotla blowing snow pactla snow that has been packed down hiryla snow in beards wa-ter melted snow tlayinq snow mixed with mud quinaya snow mixed with Husky shit quinyaya snow mixed with the shit of a lead dog slimtla snow that is crusted on top but soft underneath kriplyana snow that looks blue in the early morning puntla a mouthful of snow because you fibbed allatla baked snow fritla fried snow gristla deep fried snow MacTla snow burgers jatla snow between your fingers or toes, or in groin-folds dinliltla little balls of snow that cling to Husky fur sulitlana green snow mentlana pink snow tidtla snow used for cleaning ertla snow used by Eskimo teenagers for exquisite erotic rituals kriyantli snow bricks hahatla small packages of snow given as gag gifts semtla partially melted snow ontla snow on objects intla snow that has drifted indoors shlim slush warintla snow used to make Eskimo daiquiris mextla snow used to make Eskimo Margaritas penstla the idea of snow mortla snow mounded on dead bodies ylaipi tomorrow's snow nylaipin the snows of yesteryear ("neiges d'antan") pritla our children's snow nootlin snow that doesn't stick rotlana quickly accumulating snow skriniya snow that never reaches the ground bluwid snow that's shaken down from objects in the wind tlanid snow that's shaken down and then mixes with sky-falling snow ever-tla a spirit made from mashed fermented snow, popular among Eskimo men talini snow angels priyakli snow that looks like it's falling upward chiup snow that makes halos blontla snow that's shaken off in the mudroom tlalman snow sold to German tourists tlalam snow sold to American tourists tlanip snow sold to Japanese tourists protla snow packed around caribou meat attla snow that as it falls seems to create nice pictures in the air sotla snow sparkling with sunlight tlun snow sparkling with moonlight astrila snow sparkling with starlight clim snow sparkling with flashlight or headlight tlapi summer snow krikaya snow mixed with breath ashtla expected snow that's wagered on (depth, size of flakes) huantla special snow rolled into "snow reefers" and smoked by wild Eskimo youth tla-na-na snow mixed with the sound of old rock and roll from a portable radio depptla a small snowball, preserved in Lucite, that had been handled by Johnny Depp trinkyi first snow of the year tronkyin last snow of the year shiya snow at dawn katiyana night snow tlinro snow vapor nyik snow with flakes of widely varying size ragnitla two snowfalls at once, creating moire patterns akitla snow falling on water privtla snow melting in the spring rain chahatlin snow that makes a sizzling sound as it falls on water hootlin snow that makes a hissing sound as the individual flakes brush geltla snow dollars briktla good building snow striktla snow that's no good for building erolinyat snow drifts containing the imprint of crazy lovers chachat swirling snow that drives you nuts krotla snow that blinds you tlarin snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time motla snow in the mouth sotla snow in the south maxtla snow that hides the whole village tlayopi snow drifts you fall into and die truyi avalanche of snow tlapripta snow that burns your scalp and eyelids carpitla snow glazed with ice tla ordinary snow
The last time I looked the Phil James satire was no longer on-line. I found it years ago at http://www.word.com/gigo/eskimo/
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