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How Many Words Do Eskimos Really Have for Snow?

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There are three answers to this question: a heck of a lot, not that many, and a whole heck of a lot. Or, if you want specifics: 5, 2, and 99. Confused? The question has been problematic, and the best way to understand what the answers mean is to take a look at the history of people talking about Eskimo words for snow.

Preliminaries

There is no single "Eskimo" language. "Eskimo" is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik peoples living in the polar regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. They speak a variety of languages, the larger ones being Central Alaskan Yup'ik, West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Inuktitut. There are multiple dialects of each. Some have more words for snow than others.

 A heck of a lot

Today, you see the "Eskimos have so many words for snow" trope everywhere from ads to cartoons to articles about hairstyles. As Laura Martin noted in her 1986 article "Eskimo Words for Snow," anthropologists and psychologists started using the story in the late 1950's as a go-to illustration in discussions of the relationship between language, culture, and perception. If Eskimos carved up the world of snow into four or five categories where we had one, was their perception of snow different from ours? From there the idea spread into the popular culture, and it has been going strong ever since. Where the original sources mentioned four or five specific snow words, in the hands of the general public that number turned into 25, 50, 100, 400 – it didn't really matter. The story did not exist to give information about Eskimo languages, but to say, "hey, other people sure do look at the world differently!"

And this was problematic. The idea of using language to show that other people look at the world differently had a nasty history. Early ethnographers used linguistic evidence to impugn the character or cognitive abilities other peoples. An 1827 book mentions that in the language of Lapland "there are five words for snow, seven or eight for a mountain, but honesty, virtue and conscience must be expressed by a periphrasis." The academics who picked up the snow words tale in the 1950s didn't take such a simplistic view of the relationship between language and culture. But to say that having a lot words for something means you find it important or perceive it more readily, gives some people the wrong idea that that not having a lot of words for something means you can't perceive it and don't find it important.

Not that many

Part of the debunking of that false implication came in the form of a debunking of the snow words trope. Martin's paper and Geoffrey Pullum's well-known essay "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," pointed out that the linguistic facts did not support the idea that Eskimos had some wildly exotic giant snow vocabulary.

The Inuit and Yupik languages are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages combine a limited set of roots and word endings to create an unlimited set of words. For instance from oqaq – the West Greenlandic root for "tongue" – you get oqaaseq (word), oqaasipiluuppaa (harangues him), oqaluppoq (speaks), oqaatiginerluppaa (speaks badly about him) and Oqaasileriffik (Greenlandic language secretariat). These can then be expanded with all sorts of other endings, so that a sentence like, "I hadn't planned to cause you to harangue him after all" would be expressed with one word. If these word-sentences count as words, then Eskimos don't just have thousands of words for snow, but for everything.

Martin suggests that we instead ask how many roots Eskimos have for snow. In the case of West Greenlandic, the answer is two: qanik (snow in the air), and aput (snow on the ground). From these we can get derived words like qanipalaat (feathery clumps of falling snow) and apusiniq (snowdrift). There are also terms for snow that use different roots (for "covering," "floating" or other things snow does), but Pullum's essay notes a problem with the notion of counting words with other roots as "snow words": Do we count an Inuit word that can mean "snow for igloo making" as a snow word if it also just means building materials in general? To use another example, is "pack" a snow word in English, or a just a general term for tightly smushing things? In any case, there may be just as many snow words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, avalanche, etc.) as in "Eskimo" languages.

A whole heck of a lot

The linguist K. David Harrison has traveled all over the world studying endangered languages. In his book The Last Speakers, he says it's a mistake to think that just because people made uninformed and exaggerated claims about Eskimo snow words in the past, the real number must be ordinary and uninteresting.

From what he has seen, "the number of snow/ice/wind/weather terms in some Arctic languages is impressively vast, rich, and complex." The Yupik, for example, "identify and name at least 99 distinct sea ice formations." For example, there is a word Nuyileq, meaning "crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear."

Clearly, there is a lot more included in this definition than would be included in a typical dictionary definition. But it shows how a set of terminology can reflect a complicated body of specific expertise. Every area of expertise has such a set. Geologists have lots of words for rocks, linguists have lots of words for speech sounds. This means Eskimos may not be any more exotic than geologists or linguists, but it does not mean their words for snow are uninteresting. You can learn a lot about what distinctions are important to make in a field by looking at the distinctions between words. The Yupik ice words, whatever the number, are important because they package information in a useful way. We ignore the significance of that packaging, as Harrison says, "at our peril."

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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