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the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and Other…

the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study… (1991)

by Geoffrey K. Pullum

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Pullum is funny, cutting, and doesn't have time to fuck around. You wouldn't want to be a confused undergrad in his class, but luckily he's embraced public outreach as well, so you can read his posts on Language Log, or articles like this one, from your armchair with your coffee and come away amused and edified with no danger of drawing his attention. This tossed-off opinion piece has become the definitive refutation of the "Eskimoes* have x words for snow" canard, despite Laura Martin's earlier yeo-work in actually looking at the development of that idea and its inconsistencies and actually, like, proving it wrong, and Steven Pinker's later misappropriation of Martin's and Pullum's work to make ad hominem attacks on Benjamin Whorf, the popularizer of the idea, and ridicule the broader concept of linguistic relativism of which the Eskimo vocab thing is a trivial example.

I do not know what Geoffrey Pullum's stance on linguistic relativism is, which says good things about him: he's not trying to mischaracterize anything. (As opposed to anyone: he gets in some easy digs at Whorf for being a fire-safety inspector and not a real linguist, which is fucked because the guy did good, meaningful work, but I get the feeling Pullum's just trying to entertain.) He gets in and gets out: looks at how the thing was born from an offhand observation of Boas's (that English could have had a single root meaning "water–" for words like river, lake, rain, etc., and that some languages, like Inuktitut, do in fact have multiple productive roots for kinds of snow, where we have only one). Then he looks at how it was repeated and repeated until it was management consultants saying Eskimoes have 1000 words for snow and their brain is different and you need to maximize their productivity differently! Then he looks at how it's not meaningfully the case, that there are only two productive roots, qanik 'snow in the air' and aput 'snow on the ground', and that the multiplicity of word forms is an entirely unremarkable feature of the Inuktitut language, which agglutinates to show various different features of language, so that the number of possible snow-words is essentially infinite and their frequency essentially zero. Then he notes that even if there were multiple productive roots it would not mean any more than how printers have mutiple names for fonts and type-stuffs. He does it all without even mentioning linguistic relativity, and it's quite good. Too bad he couldn't resist being a dick to Whorf for no reason but.

*as long as we're debunking the popular ignorance, why don't we stop calling them "Eskimoes," guys? Inuit. INUIT. Is this an American thing, like "Amerind" (that rare and delicious fruit)? ( )
2 vote MeditationesMartini | May 25, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226685349, Paperback)

How reliable are all those stories about the number of Eskimo words for snow? How can lamps, flags, and parrots be libelous? How might Star Trek's Commander Spock react to Noam Chomsky's theories of language? These and many other odd questions are typical topics in this collection of essays that present an occasionally zany, often wry, but always fascinating look at language and the people who study it.

Geoffrey K. Pullum's writings began as columns in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory in 1983. For six years, in almost every issue, under the banner "TOPIC. . .COMMENT," he published a captivating mélange of commentary, criticism, satire, whimsy, and fiction. Those columns are reproduced here—almost exactly as his friends and colleagues originally warned him not to publish them—along with new material including a foreword by James D. McCawley, a prologue, and a new introduction to each of these clever pieces. Whether making a sneak attack on some sacred cow, delivering a tongue-in-cheek protest against current standards, or supplying a caustic review of some recent development, Pullum remains in touch with serious concerns about language and society. At the same time, he reminds the reader not to take linguistics too seriously all of the time.

Pullum will take you on an excursion into the wild and untamed fringes of linguistics. Among the unusual encounters in store are a conversation between Star Trek's Commander Spock and three real earth linguists, the strange tale of the author's imprisonment for embezzling funds from the Campaign for Typographical Freedom, a harrowing account of a day in the research life of four unhappy grammarians, and the true story of how a monograph on syntax was suppressed because the examples were judged to be libelous. You will also find a volley of humorous broadsides aimed at dishonest attributional practices, meddlesome copy editors, mathematical incompetence, and "cracker-barrel philosophy of science." These learned and witty pieces will delight anyone who is fascinated by the quirks of language and linguists.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:06 -0400)

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