snow job

An urban hoax.That is that the Inuit and Northern people’s have 50-200 words to describe snow. As if there is an innate need to exoticize the other. Rather mundanely, and with some relief there is only “qanik” and “aput”; snow on the ground and in the air. Reassuring, in that they are not so bored they have nothing better to do than invent names to while away the long tedious nights punctuated by barely luminous and brief patches of sky and the occasional panting and padding of the polar bear. You get the snow-drift: there is a preponderant consensus in popular culture which holds, asserts, that “primitive” people enjoy, almost lustily,  a quality,  call it authenticity or the genuine  that modern, urban civilization lacks, like Rousseau’s noble savage, and that by rolling in their snow,yellow or not,  some of this aura or authenticity will stick to our expensive brand name gear.

---In issue #23 here, two children have arrived in the far north in a dog sled, holding a letter addressed to Santa at the North Pole. A local Eskimo is shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “Who?” I figure the kids have either arrived at the North Pole (which would be an impressive feat, given the state of their gear) and are asking a local where Santa is (not that anyone actually lives at the North Pole) — or more likely, they’ve just crossed the border into Canada — or maybe upstate New York — and are asking the nearest person where the North Pole is (because it’s a well known fact that everyone in Canada is an Eskimo).--- Read More:

The mix of the familiar and the exotic has resulted in the creation and perpetuation of a number of “White Lies.” These are stories that have been developed over long periods of time, reproduced in classrooms, anthropology and sociology textbooks, and other media, but have been rarely challenged, contributing to misunderstandings that have ultimately, in subtle ways, diminished the stature of Inuit traditional culture….

---The indeterminacy and difficulty of this question is due to the fact that words don't merely match pre-existing things in the world. Rather, they shape and encapsulate ideas about things--how they are categorized (compare dog vs. canine), how we are interacting with them (compare sheep vs. mutton), how the word functions grammatically (compare the noun cow vs. the adjective bovine), and how we wish to represent our attitudes about them (compare critter vs. varmint). It was in connection with this point that discussion of Eskimo words for snow first arose (in the writings of two major 20th Century anthropological linguists, Franz Boas and Benjamin Lee Whorf). Unfortunately, their point has been pretty much missed by those who insist on counting.--- Read More: image:

…In this lively book, designed specifically for introductory students, Steckley unpacks three “White Lies”?the myth that there are fifty-two words for snow, that there are blond, blue-eyed Inuit descended from the Vikings, and that the Inuit send off their elders to die on ice floes. Debunking these popular myths allows him to illustrate how knowledge is shaped by Western social science, particularly the anthropology of the “Other,” and that it can be flawed. Read More:

---From there Martin and Pullum trace the steady growth of exaggeration, starting with Whorf's much quoted 1940 article that grows the word-count magically to 7, and eventually reaching sources claiming totals as high as 400. Just a few weeks ago I sat across a table at dinner from someone claiming to actually know "all 57 Eskimo words for snow" -- but I had neither a native speaker nor Pullum's article at hand. As Pullum deftly points out, the traditional claim is "Eskimos have N words for snow" (for growing N) -- and every part of that claim is problematic: There is no single language "Eskimo", just as there is no single language "Indian". And, like "Indian", "Eskimo" is not a very good name: it lumps together two major cultural groups, the Inuit and Aleut, and ignores major differences (including huge language variation) within each group. How do we count "words"?--- Read More: image:

This pining for authenticity, the toothless smile of the Inuit paddling around in a kayak as if offering taxi fare in Venice is part of a winding back the clock process, the power of “innocence” in gripping popular imagination, as if we have become tarnished by running water and flushing toilets. We want to “primitivise” them as peace lovin’ folk living in harmony with nature devoid of any ancestral skeletons of the rapacious and brutal. It seems to be an intrinsic component of white culture  and spending gazillions on government funded studies and multiculturism policies has changed little in the collective psyche, in fact perhaps even reinforcing the fictional tropes.

---Certainly languages tend to define reality differently - as "river" and "stream" in English define size, while "fleuve" and "riviere" in French describe whether or not the river meets the sea . Similarly do we define a buttercup as a "weed" with all its negative connotations or a flower with its positive ones. Is the criterion "wildness" or "beauty"? How might this categorisation differ in other languages - and how then might other language speakers perceive things differently? The theory, based on the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, and originating in the work of Boas and of Whorf, has its merits, although there is a view that it is as likely that language depends on and reflects thought as much as thought depends on language.--- Read More: image:


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