The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax

By MacNeal, Edward | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax


MacNeal, Edward, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


EVEN THOUGH I fall outside its usual academic target-audience, I said yes to Lingua Franca's 1990 subscription offer, because it got to me personally. The offer featured an article, "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," purporting to debunk a myth regarding the number of words Eskimos, have for snow. It just so happened that I, -- many years ago, of course, you understand -- well, that I passed along such a "myth," if indeed it was, to other unsuspecting people.

The Mathsemantic Monitor fells that good semantic practice requires him to search out and destroy his own unsound semantic habits, and when safe, even to help others in the same way.

Accordingly, I felt obliged to say yes. My subscription, however, began with a later issue. The one that had motivated me was sold out. I seemed to have missed fate's hook.

Then a 1992 University of Chicago Press catalog listed a book ($14.95, postage paid, paperback) by Geoffrey K. Pullum titled, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the study of Language. This time I connected.

Professor Pullum's book consists of twenty-four short and seriously irreverent articles published originally as "Topic ...Comment" columns in Natural Language and Linguisic Theory, a journal whose existence, I confess, had previously escaped my notice. The title article was in chapter 19. Not wanting to rush to my reward without knowing something about my nemesis, I began at the "Foreword." Its author, James D. McCawley, quickly made clear that I'd purchased a collection of in-stories I might not understand:

Each Pullum column [said McCawley] was an exquisitely crafted piece of criticism, satire, fantasy, and/or reporting, dealing entertainingly and provocatively with important issues relating to the ways in which we linguists practice our profession or to the ways in which the world beyond our journals, classrooms, and conferences impinges on linguistics and its practitioners.

Like Freemasonry, the roles of insider and outsider admit of degrees. Pullum must rank as a 33rd-degree linguistics insider. I'm not any kind of linguistics professional (or professional anything else except aviation consultant). My dabblings in linguistics allowed me to recognize only about one is six of the people and publications Pullum mentioned. But that was enough to keep me going.

And as I read on, averageing less than one short chapter per sitting, my appreciation grew slowly and irregularly. The first seven chapters, on "Fashions and Tendencies" in linguistics, were for me the hardest. Chapter six, for example, an interview of Noam Chomsky by Science Officer Spock on the Generative Enterprise, must be a scream for scholars in the linguistics space quadrant. I managed a polite but mostly uncomprehending smile.

The next seven chapters, on "Publication and Damnation," began to tickle. By the time I started the next six chapters, on "Unscientific Behavior," I was ready to laugh. Chapter fifteen, "The Revenge of the Methodological Moaners", broke me up. As the author warns, in this piece he "rails against the tendency of linguists to write about the philosophy of science as applied to their subject instead of writing about what languages are like, which is what linguists are supposed to be good at." You could find similar tendencies in almost any social science.

The last chapter in the "unscientific-behavior" section reminded me of the care with which Allen Walker Read tracked down the origin of "OK." In this chapter Pullum exposes and destroys "the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax."

Because I should, and because I believe you'll find it interesting, let me pass along Pullum's assignment of credit. "What I do here," he says, "is very little more than an extended review and elaboration on Laura Martin's wonderful American Anthropologist report of 1986 [based in turn on a speech she gave in 1982]. Laura Martin is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Cleveland State University. …

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