The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax: And Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language

The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax: And Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language

"The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" is a compilation of tongue-in-cheek essays written by linguist Geoffrey Pullum that were published in the journal Natural Language and Linguistic Theory in the 1980's. I was loaned this book by a friend when I started talking about the information content of non-verbal thought, blind people, and the color green. This book didn't help me make any progress on that question, but it did give me a few other questions to think about - primarily in the philosophy of science. There's not much meat on this bone, but the meat there is is delicious.

I found some of the essays a bit too "inside baseball" for a non-linguist such as myself. But I could appreciate many of the delightful wordplays and turns of phrase that one might expect from a linguist satirist. I also love the idea of a scientific journal publishing a less-formal common that pokes fun at the inconsistencies in the field.

My favorite essay in the whole collection is "Chomsky on the Enterprise" which is a fabulous showdown of Chomsky and Spock. But the essays that really made this book worth reading were the ones that discussed the philosophy of science and the role of politics/faction in research.

My highlights below.

Watch out for the current

And science is almost certainly just as prone to follow fashions as any other domain of human endeavor, but to point this out raises a few hackles here and there. Thomas Kuhn, whose book on scientific revolutions is quoted so often by linguists that on the basis of his citation index any Dean would grant him tenure in a linguistics department, is quite explicit about this; but he has taken a lot of flak for it. Many philosophers of science have been somewhat aghast at the prospect of irrationality in theory choice. Living as (I assume) they do, in such a measured and calculated way that they use modus tollens to reason their way to the conclusion that it's time for a cup of coffee, they are horrified to think that a nuclear physicist might adopt a theoretical stance just to look avant garde, or (as Paul Feyerabend put it) to impress a lover.

That stranger in the bar

It's simply that if killing is on the agenda, I guess I want it to be in the hands of creatures like me.

How many people who were not tipped off by a knowledgeable friend spotted that the initials "H.A.L." are the immediate predecessors in the alphabet of the initials "I.B.M."? Was Arther C. Clarke surreptitiously publicizing the International Business Machines Corporation with this allusion in his novel, or was it coincidence?

If it's Tuesday, this must be glossematics

Yet there is more: language is simultaneously the stuff of art - the fabric of which poetry is wrought - and a puzzle for social and biological science. It spans the alleged gulf between the humanities and the sciences (and in consequence as Barbara Hall Partee recently pointed out to me, is perhaps the only subject that regularly gets research funding from agencies in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences). And it is genuinely humanizing, it seems to me. The process of examining analytically the complexities in one's own language and in others seems inherently likely to increase one's sensitivity to ways of expressing thought, and one's awareness of the mystery of human intelligence and its intriguingly diverse channels of expression.

Formal linguistics meets the Boojum

Part of the problem is that a word can survive the eroision and eventual loss of its referent; think of the word 'equal' in Orwell's Animal Farm, or the word 'defense' since 1945.

The linguistics of defamation

The only thing keeping the American legal system from getting like the British one, where an amazing battery of weapoons is arrayed against the freedom of the press, and the abuse of the libel laws by the rich and influential is a national disgrace, is the well-known doctrine that says public figures should get out of the kitchen if they can't take the heat: the New York Times rule (The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254). Because of this rule, the news media in America since 1964 have remained free to do what has had to be done over the last few decades - uncovering the mendacity and criminal misdeeds of presidents, vice presidents, attorneys general, senators, congressmen, and generals - by publishing freerly and fearlessly under no constraint more severe than a desire to be recognized as a reliable source of information. If the news media in America were exposed without protection to the full lunacy of the 400-year-old jumble of defamation case law, much of the power of the American people to keep a watchful eye on their government would disappear like the morning mist.

The revenge of the methodological monsters

Well, I am not aware of having had Sampson in mind at the time, but if he thinks the cap fits, he is certainly welcome to insert his head.

I discern three main factions in philosophy of science. The first contains the logicians. They study topics like the logic of confirmation, the empirical status of counterfactual conditional claims, and so on. They cite Hempel and Popper, and their examples are about swans being white. The second faction contains the sociohistorians. They study issues like the emergence of scientific revolutions and the sociological preconditions for acceptance of new theories. They cite Kuhn and Lakatos, and their examples are about brave physicists and chemists struggling on despite recalcitrant data and the disapproval of friends and relatives. The third faction consists of Paul Feyerabend. What Feyerabend offers is not so much philosophy as guerilla theater for philosophers. His work is marvelous reading: bubbling wit, boiling invective, deep erudition, a constant twinkle in the eye... But make no mistake; reading Feyerabend without appreciating that he is sending the whole business up is like mistaking Monty Python's Flying Circus for the Ten O'Clock News. In his celebrated book Against Method, for example, Feyerabend offers, tongue in cheek, a recipe for the destruction of science.

The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax

The prevalence of the great Eskimo snow hoax is testimony to falling standards in academia, but also to a wider tendency (particularly in the United States, I'm afraid) toward fundamentally anti-intellectual "gee-whiz" modes of discourse and increasing ignorance of scientific thought.

Don't be a coward like me. Stand up and tell teh speaker this: C. W. Shultz-Lorentzen's Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (1927) gives just two possibly relevant roots: qanik meaning 'snow in the air' or 'snowflake', and aput, meaning 'snow on the ground'. Then add that you would be interested to know if the speaker can cite anymore. This will not make you the most popular person in the room. It will have an effect roughly comparable to pouring fifty gallons of thick oatmeal into a harpsichord during a baroque recital. But it will strike a blow for truth, responsibility, and standards of evidence in linguistics.

For my part, I want to make one last effort to clarify that the chapter above isn't about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I'm sure it will be taken to be. What it's actually about is intellectual sloth. Among all the hundreds of people making published contributions to the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, no one had acquired any evidence about how long the puprorted list of snow terms really was, or what words were on it, or what criteria were used in deciding what to put on the list. The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.