Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax

Tecumseh Winter

Do Eskimos really have the largest snow vocabularies? For years, linguists have theorized that Eskimos in fact have accumulated the largest vocabularies in regards to snow, also known as the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis. The main idea being, that the more you know something, the more you experience it and the more you think, see, and touch something the greater your variety of language around it. Since Eskimos have vast experiences with snow, the idea that they may have the most varied and complex ways to describe it sounds logical.

Over the years "The Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" has countered this hypothesis, stating that Eskimos in fact do not have the largest snow vocabularies. Linguists behind the Hoax theory point out that several Eskimo languages (Inuit, Yupik) vary their root words by adding any number of prefixes to them. By changing their root words in this way, Eskimos have dozens upon dozens of ways to really describe anything, not just snow.

So it seems that Eskimo languages are really more flexible in the way that they create vocabulary by adding prefixes, not that they have the largest snow vocabularies. Although the idea behind the Sapir- Wharf hypothesis still resonates with me. Based on the winter we have had here in New England my snow vocabulary is certainly growing (up to 12 different words!). Care to add to the list? Let me know what I am missing...

snow. powder. dusting. fluff. hardpack. slush. sleet. snowflake. flurry. avalanche. hail. frost.

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