There is snow way that is true!

It is winter here in Canada. As I write this, I am home visiting some family for the holidays which is of course a blessing in these still uncertain times. Here in Alberta the temperatures have dipped down below -40 Celsius at times (which is the same in Freedom Units) with snow falling almost every day. This frigid wasteland has me thinking about a common myth that has been thrown around a lot in the past and I felt that now would be a good time for me to talk about it. But first, I should introduce a few key concepts so you can understand the explanation a bit better.

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Morphology is a subfield of linguistics that cares about how words are formed and how those words relate to other words in a sentence. It deals with things like affixation and case marking and is often lumped in with syntax because they have a surprising amount of overlap to give us the field of morphosyntax. Affixation is the process of adding supplemental material onto a word to either change the category of it, or enhance it in some other way. This could be something as simple as adding an -s to the end of the word to make it plural, or it could be a complex multistep process to make a word like antidisestablishmentarianism by attaching a whole bunch of affixes before and after the base word, establish.

Case marking is a morphological process in which a noun is “marked” in some way to designate its grammatical role. This could be as simple as designating a noun to be the subject or the object of a sentence. The process of case marking often involves some sort of affixation in some languages but may also result in a completely different word being used in others. It is a little bit tricky to explain using English examples because English does not have a very good case system, but you can see it on personal pronouns. Take the pronoun ‘they’ for instance. In most forms of English, you can say something like “They will see you tomorrow” but you can’t produce a sentence like “*You will see they tomorrow”. Instead of using ‘they’ in the object position, you need to use ‘them’. This is why, when a person is giving you their pronouns to use, they will give you a pairing like ‘they/them’, ‘she/her’, ‘he/him’, etc. because you need to know how to address them as the subject of a sentence and as the object.

In the world of morphology, we would call the first pronoun in the pairing the “nominative” pronoun, and the second one would be the “accusative” pronoun because in English, subjects are assigned nominative case and objects are assigned accusative case. There is so much more to case assignment and so many more types of case that words can have, but that would be a whole post on its own and would require a lot more setup because English does not have a particularly rich case system so I will keep that one in my pocket for a later post. Right now, let’s get back to affixation.

As I mentioned, affixation in English has two basic functions. It can either change the category of a word through a process we call derivation, or it can enhance a word in some way through a process that we call inflection. Beyond affixation though, we can also just combine two words together through a process called compounding. All these processes can happen multiple times to a single word, but the order of them is of the utmost importance.

Keeping on theme with the frigid awful landscape I am stuck in for now, let’s look at snowblowers. What are snowblowers exactly? Simple! They are machines that blow snow. But how is the word snowblowers formed?

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Let’s start back at the base with the word ‘blow’. The instance of ‘blow’ in this compound word is a verb that refers to some type of wind creating an air current. But the word ‘snowblowers’ is a noun, so we know that at some point, there was a derivational process which changed the category of the word. As it turns out, this happens when we apply our first affix to the word. Adding ‘-er’ to the end of a verb will change its category to a noun and make the definition of it essentially “the thing that does the verb contained within the word”. So really, a blower, is just a thing that blows for the purposes of this compound word.

But how do we know that this was the first word that was attached to this compound? Well, have you ever heard of a snowblow? The fact that my word processer just underlined the snowblow in red when I finished typing it tells me that you probably haven’t. The fact that snowblow doesn’t exist tells us that we need to create the word ‘blower’ before we can add on the word snow. And this is the compounding process in action where we combine the noun ‘snow’ with our newly formed noun ‘blower’ to create the new noun ‘snowblower’.

In this particular compound, we would call ‘blower’ the head of the compound because it is the one doing the majority of the heavy lifting in the definition of the compound. Think about it like this, a snowblower is a thing that moves snow around by blowing it, it is not something that is creating snow to be placed in a pile for movies or things like that (that would be a “snow cannon”).

This is a little difficult to see when we are working with two nouns, but picture a compound like ‘breakwater’ where we a combining the verb ‘break’ with the noun ‘water’. The end result of this combination gives us the noun ‘breakwater’ so we know that the head of the compound is the noun ‘water’ and it is what is dictating the class of the compound.

Back to ‘snowblower’ we now only need to add on the plural ‘-s’ affix to create the word ‘snowblowers’. This is an inflectional affix because it is not changing the category of the word at all, it is still a noun. In other words, we are not changing what the snowblower actually is, there are just several of them now!

All of this information about affixation is just a primer for the real thing that I wanted to talk about today though (which is still snow-adjacent!). Over the years, you may have heard the myth that speakers of the language Inuktitut have a greater appreciation and knowledge of snow because they have 50 (or hundreds according to some) words for snow. This is not actually the case and I can show you that. But when pop-science articles are making these sorts of claims, what do they mean and what are they getting wrong?

First off, let’s talk about Inuktitut. Inuktitut is a language in the Eskimo-Aleut family that is primarily spoken in Northern Canada and is recognized as one of the official languages of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories with approximately 35-40 thousand speakers based on the 2016 census data. Inuktitut is known as a polysynthetic language which lines up quite nicely with what we have been talking about, affixation.

Polysynthetic languages are languages that create words from many morphemes, some of which can stand on their own and some that cannot. Bringing it back to the ‘snowblowers’ example, words like ‘snow’ and ‘blow’ are perfectly fine on their own, but things like ‘-er’ and ‘-s’ need something to attach to and cannot stand alone. Polysynthetic languages go far beyond compounds like this though. They can contain whole utterances and ideas within a single word.

A good example of this is pulled from Wikipedia. In Inuktitut, the word ‘qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga’ means “I’ll have to go to the airport”. I did not forget any spaces in the word I promise, it is really all just one word. And the base morpheme of this word is ‘qangata’ which means “to raise/to be raised in the air”. So, through a multistep process of affixation and compounding (which you can see for yourself in the link) Inuktitut speakers are able to take the complex concept of one’s need to go to the airport and contain it within a single word.

Back do the snow question then. Does Inuktitut really have over 50 words for snow? No! They have a lot of words “about” snow… but so does English! In English, we have wet snow, heavy snow, light snow, snow drifts, snow banks, snow angels, and so many other things related to snow. In English we do not have the same ability to create incredibly complex compounds like Inuktitut does so in reality Inuktitut would also have the majority of these snow descriptor type compounds that we have in English as well as the ability to express a complex idea like the verb ‘aputiktatuk’ which means “fetches snow to make water”. This is a word that contains the word “snow” within it, but it is not a word for snow! This word is hardly even about snow at the end of the day!!

A long story made short here is that there is this old idea put forward by some linguists that the words in a language and the way that they are used can determine the way that speakers of the language think and as it turns out, it doesn’t really hold melted snow at the end of the day. This theory is known as linguistic determinism and I think for the sake of time here, I will leave that be for now as a teaser for a future post. But I hope that I was able to adequately show that no, Inuktitut speakers do not have a richer and more in depth understanding of snow because they have “so many words for it”.  The fact that there are so many words related to snow is just a consequence of how their language forms words.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


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