The Great Snow Debate

4254545685_5501860a27_mOne of universally loved stories that college professors  tell undergraduate students in intriguingly entitled courses like “Introduction to Language and Culture” is “The Great Snow Debate”.

As the story goes, one year a set of intrepid yet naïve scientists plowed their way through the frozen tundra to investigate and preserve the language of the indigenous peoples. During their interviews, the researchers noted that the Inuit have a surprisingly large number of names for snow…light snow, wet snow, heavy snow, deep snow… You name it, the Inuit have a moniker for it. Excited by their discovery, some of the scientists decided to concentrate their efforts on snow names. And the more they asked, the more names they uncovered. Soon, more researchers arrived to capture what seemed to be an inexhaustible onomastic store of names. The publications multiplied, careers were made, and contests were waged. No sooner had one researcher reported having identified dozens of snow names than another one came claiming to have recovered more.

At the end of it, the race for names finally collapsed under the weight of the scholarly attention placed upon the sometimes flimsy methodological scaffolding. The fact that interviewees were paid by the name meant that native speakers invented some of the names they reported. Another problem was the simple fact that the researchers grossly underestimated the number of names which many non-indigenous people have for snow. Consider, for example, the breadth and depth of names which meteorologists in Minnesota or skiers in Boulder have to describe snow.

This does not mean to say that all was lost. Despite the lasting chagrin which surrounds the Great Snow Debate, one of the benefits was the development and spread of one of the leading theories of modern linguistics: The Linguistic Theory of Relativity. One of the most important tenet of this theory is that people’s interaction with their physical environment will have a significant affect upon the names they develop to label their perceptual experience.