I first heard that the Inuits had a cornocupia of words to describe snow; and then I heard that they had just the usual number.

Both of these cannot be true. One must be a myth. Which one?

The first possibly a well-intentioned anthropological effort to describe the indigenous inuits, the 'primitive' inuits as not that primitive.

The second a civilised retort or perhaps a lazy one to put pesky anthropologists in their place.

Is it possible to determine which angle is the correct-one?

Most people have heard of numbers, many can name most of them; but because numbers are the 'environment' of mathematicians, most mathematicians can name many more number systems than just the ones we ate ordinarily acquainted with: monoids, semigroups, groups, magmas, rings, modules, fields, posets, prosets, lattices and so on.

Given this, it would appear that the first angle is correct.

Is this reasoning faulty?

  • This question has nothing to do with Kant; tags don't show on the smart-phone I'm using. Can someone add critical-thinking and ecological-philosophy tags and remove the kant tag. Oct 9 '14 at 1:43
  • 1
    Isn't this a question of linguistics or sociology? In any event this is interesting. washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/…
    – user4894
    Oct 9 '14 at 4:08
  • It is indeed interesting. Possibly it partially overlaps with those domains, but I'm trying to point out that a little reflection shows that Boas's observation is obvious after a little reflection, but its nice to get some (post-hoc) corroboration from field-work. Oct 9 '14 at 6:29
  • Actually the same observation holds for computer languages and professional vocabularies such as economics or farming. Oct 9 '14 at 6:31
  • Wikepedia list 35 types of snow in English: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_snow Oct 10 '14 at 4:36

I think that the above line of reasoning is very intuitive and attractive. Sticking with the theme of geography, I can only imagine how many words are in the everyday lexicon of a cartographer that you or I would errantly replace with "mountain" or "forest". This example, like the mathematician or the farmer, points to the development of language to describe increasingly technical and specific aspects of the environment as more and more time and energy is spent in that environment.

There is also, of course, a reflection of cultural values in that evermore specific language. We see that often- For English speakers, "cousin" can refer to any number of different relatives. For Mandarin speakers, there are specific terms for the older female cousins on your father's side, as opposed to the younger, male cousins on your mother's side, as opposed to older, male... you get the point. Chinese Familial Titles. That specificity is reflective of specific cultural norms, to some degree. Here though, another language, for example, English, does not lack that specificity, as evidenced by the fact that accurate translations for each of those familial terms, however cumbersome, do exist.

The question, then, is whether or not there are words that describe "snow" in some capacity which cannot be translated. If there are, then the native Inuit language actually has more words for "snow" than another language, say, English does. But, if those great many words describe snow in various capacities, and all of those can be translated, (I.E. Snow (noun), snow (verb), snowdrift/snowbank, wet snow/dry snow, falling snow/fallen snow, heavy snow/medium snow/light snow, etc.)there isn't really an abundance of terms in one language as opposed to the other. One language may consolidate elements of the many phenomena into a like category (snow) but specific terms for any given phenomena can then be created in that language.

Alternatively, there are words that cannot be translated to English in any understandable way. As philosophy students, we are all familiar with Aufheben, Noumenon and any other number of complex terms which must be borrowed from their native languages and used as such Words that cannot be Translated. If a significant amount of the Inuit words for snow in any given capacity meet this criteria, then we could more comfortable state there is an abundance of terms in one language compared to the other.

Ultimately, a more informed understanding of the Native Inuit language will be necessary to answer this question.

  • i thought you need about 1,000 words to communicate in a language... They have 1,000 words just to name all your relatives!!!
    – gnasher729
    Oct 9 '14 at 21:39
  • And I thought Indian family naming conventions were complicated. Oct 9 '14 at 23:51
  • Haha, indeed. I've been taking Mandarin lessons for a little over a year now. That lesson was particularly... Challenging. Fortunately my instructor took it easy on us.
    – Dog
    Oct 10 '14 at 0:01

Actually I think it is a case of the lack of awareness of one's own context. The idea is that anthropologists, not being meteorologists or navigators, were amazed by the technical vocabulary around snow. But they were talking to people who went out amongst the elements daily, traveling on snow rather than solid footing, or water, and were therefore effectively something of both of the above.

My extended family were dairy farmers who grew their own feed. Farmers are not amazed at the number of words for nasty weather, or the number of words for difficult passages over land, as they monitor the weather, and they choose land to plow or transport animals over. I (the visitor, in the anthropologists' position) often was. And snow constitutes both of these things for Inuits.

To me the object lesson here is the craziness of having a professional class of people who study foreign cultures, who were drawn for a long time from the most insular part of our own. However you reach out to foreign cultures, the effort should span social classes.

  • 1
    I take your point; but I think there was an ethical dimension to anthropology that presented them as peoples rather than curios, at least this comes across in Mary Douglases Purity and Danger. Oct 9 '14 at 17:44
  • Yeah, and it regularly goes too far in speculating their sophistication. 'Coming of age in Samoa' is another such attempt to see a culture as more evolved in its own way, and it just led to a grown woman mistaking for honesty what she would have seen as adolescent power-play in her own culture. Refusing to project is hard to balance with projecting our wishful thinking. A lot of 'observations' about how different a language is from our own turn out to be impossible, given what we (think we) know of childhood language acquisition, and when we check, they turn out to be false.
    – user9166
    Oct 9 '14 at 18:06
  • I guess what I am saying is that the overextention and the retort are equally well-willed. People do not have the context to do what anthropologists attempt even within their own cultures, but within those bounds they can get better clues as to what is arrogance or projection. So suspicion of the entire discipline is warranted. (Especially while the path into the discipline depends upon a filter that overvalues abstraction.)
    – user9166
    Oct 9 '14 at 18:12
  • I think the dominance of abstraction in French thought is what prompted Levi-strauss's move into anthropology. Fair points on the action and reaction; but it isn't restricted to just anthropology, something similar happened in philosophy itself - the phenomenological tradition. Oct 9 '14 at 18:48

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