During the 1880s a man named Franz Boas travelled through Northern Canada to study the Inuit people and their culture. Along the way he recorded his findings, including his observations of the languages used among the Eskimos. Throughout Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, Greenland, and the Chukchi Peninsula on the eastern tip of Siberia the languages of the Eskimo-Aleut family are widely spoken. This language family has two branches – the Eskimo Languages and the Aleut languages. Although the Aleut language family consists of a single language, Aleut, there are also various dialects. The other branch – Eskimo languages – divides further, leading to the Yupik languages and the Inuit language. Many dialects can then be distinguished from the main forms of these languages.
Boaz’s studies and remarks on the linguistics of ‘Eskimo’ languages became widespread and so, it seems, did the concept that there are many different words for ‘snow’. This popular theory is disregarded as poor linguistic reporting by many and there is still some debate as to how true the claims are. Other studies can perhaps shed more light on this however. In a report by Anthony C. Woodbury, the differences between a ‘word’ and a ‘lexeme’ are clearly defined and this distinction is applied to the question regarding how many “words” there are for ‘snow’ in the ‘Eskimo’ languages. Woodbury outlines fifteen such meanings for snow however, he also raises the questions that are perhaps the key to understanding the ongoing clash of opinions surrounding the topic; “Are all fifteen lexeme meanings really ‘snow’-meanings? That is, do words with these meanings really count for you as words for snow?”; “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?”
These and other linguistic points related to research by other linguists, most notably the ‘Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary’ of Steven Jacobson, have been put forward by Woodbury to show that perhaps the answer to the question “How many words are there for snow in Eskimo languages?” is not so straightforward because there are so many factors to consider. What do you think? Are there 15 words for snow or are there many more? How do these words compare to words for snow in other languages and where is the line drawn? In English for example you might say snowflake or blizzard and refer to different types of snow. In Inuit then, due no doubt to the proximity and deep knowledge of snowy-conditions, there are words to describe the crust that forms on fallen snow or the different types of snow as it falls – not just fine or heavy but instead “drifting particles” and so forth. Perhaps English has as many variations but they are used instead purely in a scientific context rather than day to day. In Swansea particularly I would have to say I have only ever had need to use a few words to describe the variations of snow we experience. Rain on the other hand…
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