Manny's Reviews > The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language

The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays ... by Geoffrey K. Pullum
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Jun 12, 12

bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy, well-i-think-its-funny
Read in January, 2003

Everyone who works with linguistics knows and admires Geoff Pullum, and the title piece, which you can read online here, is pure gold. You don't need to be a linguist yourself to find it very amusing. A few quotes to try and persuade you to check it out:
It is in the scholarly community that we ought to find a certain immunity, or at least resistance, to uncritical acceptance of myths, fables and misinformation. But sadly, the academic profession shows a strong tendency to create stable and self-sustaining but completely false legends of its own, and hang on to them grimly, transmitting them from article to article and from textbook to textbook like software viruses spreading between students' Macintoshes.
... the truth is that the Eskimos do not have lots of different words for snow, and no one who knows anything about Eskimo (or more accurately, about the Inuit and Yupik families of related languages spoken from Siberia to Greenland) have ever said they do.
"A silly, infuriatingly unscholarly piece, designed to mislead" is what one irate but anonymous senior scholar called this chapter when it was first published in NLLT. But this is not correct; rather, what I have written here is a silly, misleadingly scholarly piece, designed to infuriate. There is a huge difference.
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message 1: by Drake (new) - added it

Drake You review the books I want to read. Thank you.


Manny I'm glad to hear it, Drake! Did you check out his essay? It's one of my all-time favorite linguistics papers...


message 3: by Simon (last edited Jun 10, 2012 09:20AM) (new)

Simon A fun and interesting paper, though I think Pullum gets the moral of his own story wrong. In the final paragraph, he writes: "the chapter above isn't about Eskimo lexicography at all,though I'm sure it will be taken to be. What it's actually about is intellectual sloth." The real moral, I think, is this. It is no coincidence that the whole mess originates with Whorf (the original source in Boas is unexceptionable). The Whorfian idea of languages expressing metaphysics is one that many, many people are very attached to, at a surprisingly deep level. (I myself find the idea entirely without merit. The paragraph from Whorf that Pullum quotes makes me mad in about six different ways!) I think the Eskimo stuff is wielded as a kind of synecdoche for that whole metaphysical swamp. It would be interesting to know how many of the occurrences of the Eskimo hoax occur in something like that context.


Manny That is a good point - the misguided Whorfian ideas are what make the hypothesis so attractive. But the flagrant lack of checking of the primary sources is also rather startling!


message 5: by Simon (new)

Simon Absolutely. Startling.


message 6: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 10, 2012 11:49AM) (new)

Jennifer (aka EM) interestingly enough, LeGuin uses the many-words-for-snow idea in The Left Hand of Darkness, which I'm just now reading -- it's among a number of ideas that make the book feel dated (no less enjoyable, but dated).


message 7: by Manny (last edited Jun 10, 2012 02:13PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Jennifer, I had forgotten that LeGuin does it too! Well, I guess no one's perfect.

Simon, on considering it further, it does occur to me to wonder if the fact (now generally acknowledged, I think) that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is false isn't telling us something very interesting about language. Intuitively, as you say, one expects it to be true - that's why the Eskimo snow claim is so widespread. But it isn't. Why? Perhaps language is more tightly hardwired than we want to believe?


message 8: by Simon (new)

Simon Manny, I hope I didn't say that intuitively, one expects S-W to be true. It seems to me very counter-intuitive. What I meant to say was that many people are attached to it. So much the worse for them, I say. As to what all this shows about whether language is more hard-wired than we want to believe, perhaps you can say more about what you are thinking.


message 9: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 10, 2012 08:29PM) (new)

Whitaker As I understand it, the S-W hypothesis states that language conditions how we think. At its highest, it posits that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you. Stated at a lower level, it posits that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world. I suppose it depends on the level at which you state it, but I would have thought that this isn't all that controversial.

Would it ever occur to any of you to tell your kid, "Your maternal aunt gave you this T-shirt for Christmas."? I'm not saying that you can't conceive of the notion of a maternal vs a paternal aunt. Of course you can. But is that a distinction that you make clearly on an every day basis as a matter of course?

Are linguists taking an opposite position: That language has no effect at all on how we think or the kinds of thoughts we are likely to have? Or is it more, we currently have no proof that there is a link between language and thinking processes therefore we cannot make a statement about this one way or the other?


message 10: by Simon (new)

Simon Whitaker wrote: "Would it ever occur to any of you to tell your kid, "Your maternal aunt gave you this T-shirt for Christmas."? I'm not saying that you can't conceive of the notion of a maternal vs a paternal aunt. Of course you can. But is that a distinction that you make clearly on an every day basis as a matter of course? "

Agreed; but what this shows, I think, is the influence of material reality on both thought and language, not the influence of language on thought. It's because a culture gives a special prominent place to a maternal aunt that it has a special word for that relation.

As for the position of linguists on the matter, Manny can certainly give a better answer than I can. But this recent article seems to me sensible on the topic.


message 11: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Simon wrote: "Whitaker wrote: "Would it ever occur to any of you to tell your kid, "Your maternal aunt gave you this T-shirt for Christmas."? I'm not saying that you can't conceive of the notion of a maternal vs..."

Just got round to reading the article. Thanks! It was an excellent article. Honestly, to me, any difference between the S-W hypothesis and what is described in the article seems to be only in fine nuance. This is not that the distinction would not be important or significant, but I think such significance would be unimportant for most laypeople.


Manny That was indeed an interesting article! Though I am now more curious than ever about Guugu Yimithirr. Apart from the geographic directions, I remember hearing a paper in 1985 which claimed that it also permits an unusually free word order.

Unfortunately, I know very little about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I'm tempted to read Deutscher's book though...


message 13: by Simon (new)

Simon Whitaker wrote: "Honestly, to me, any difference between the S-W hypothesis and what is described in the article seems to be only in fine nuance."

In fact, I think there is a big difference. As the author of the NYT article puts it (and it's been a while since I read it so I may not have remembered it completely accurately), S-W is about how language (allegedly) limits you, traps you into a certain world view, or 'metaphysics'; whereas the things he discusses are cases in which language may enable or encourage some things. Ultimately, S-W is bound up with romantic and vaguely racist notions that there are 'peoples' that have particular, unique and defining weltanschauungs which are, in some sense, impenetrable to and unknowable by those not raised in them. This is dark and gloomy stuff, IMO, and a far cry from the cheerful point that if your language doesn't have words for points of the compass, you have to develop other ways of navigating.

But, and this is a big but, S-W is such a vague idea that it can't really be meaningfully discussed, again in my view, without being made a lot more specific. Issues of vocabulary are one thing; morphology of words another; syntax yet something else. When you get to details, you either get claims like the one you made above about maternal aunts, which don't really get one very far (of course your language will have no word for a given species of plant if speakers of it never have any contact, directly or indirectly, with that species); or you get to stuff that will become implausible quite quickly, I think. (Here, my lack of knowledge prevents me from giving a good example. However, I have read, in a book by a scholar I respect, that this book shows the Whorf's actual contentions about Hopi tenses and their (alleged) metaphysics of time are wrong.)


Manny John McWhorter is scathing about S-W and Hopi. I am pretty sure that puppy is dead.

By the way, did you know that Ian Watson's The Embedding is in essence a science-fiction novel integrally based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Perhaps this is where it belongs - the book is quite entertaining.


message 15: by Simon (new)

Simon I don't know Watson's book but will check it out. I'm not sure how closely it's linked to S-W in particular, but definitely in that neck of the woods philosophically is China Mieville's Embassytown, which I reviewed here.


Manny Ah, people keep recommending Embassytown to me! I clearly need to read it. The only Mieville I've read so far is Kraken, which I liked.


message 17: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Simon wrote: "In fact, I think there is a big difference. As the author of the NYT article puts it (and it's been a while since I read it so I may not have remembered it completely accurately), S-W is about how language (allegedly) limits you, traps you into a certain world view, or 'metaphysics'; whereas the things he discusses are cases in which language may enable or encourage some things."

True. That's a good point that I hadn't considered. Okay, I'm with you on that.


message 18: by René (new)

René For an academic, he shows a surprizing level of ignorance as the the macintoshe's susceptibility to software viruses. :) Just kidding, thanks for the review.


Manny This was written a while ago... it's possible they were more virus-prone then, I can't remember!


Manny He is so witty. If only all academics wrote like that.


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