Eskimo Friend Definition Essay

As the word 'Eskimo' gets ready to depart from writing and polite conversation, I've regretted having to say goodbye, so I called an old friend who hasn't liked the word for a long time.

While I was growing up in Turnagain, oblivious to race except for my parents' lessons to treat everyone the same, Dalee Sambo Dorough was growing up Inupiaq in Inlet View, enduring racist taunts at her elementary school, where she was the only Alaska Native.

We went on to the same high school (as did our daughters, who also became friends), but I left for college while Sambo Dorough was centrally involved in the biggest Native issues of the day, starting even before she graduated.

She was at the founding of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference with Eben Hopson in 1977, and, while running the ICC's Anchorage office during the 1980s, raised money for the Thomas Berger report that gathered rural reactions to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That historic report influenced changes in the way Alaska's Native corporations are structured. Along the way, Sambo Dorough also got a doctorate in law.

I asked if the word Eskimo is racist. She paused before saying, "I cringe at its use, but not to the extent that I would lash out and say, 'Don't use that term.'" She also doesn't like the word Bush as a reference to rural Alaska, which has largely disappeared without much note.

Sambo Dorough learned about first peoples choosing their own names for themselves as a young woman, when she first got involved in international indigenous issues. In Canada and Greenland, they were getting rid of names given by outsiders, including Eskimo, and returning to their own traditional names, such as Inuit.

"We see this happening across the globe, of indigenous peoples, indigenous communities, asserting themselves by use of their vocabulary, their names according to themselves, and I think it is … an expression of the right of self-determination," she said. "One of the elements of self-determination is self-identification."

That ends the discussion for me: Everyone deserves to choose his or her own name. But the language we share belongs to all of us, and losing words can make it difficult to communicate. Practically, we end up more separated when we lose words.

In this case, it's a problem because the meaning of Eskimo doesn't exactly match Inuit.

In Inupiaq, the word Inuit means people, so it works in northern Alaska as well as it does in Canada. But Yup'ik doesn't have the word Inuit, and those Southwest Alaska people are Eskimos, too, sharing cultural traits with the Inupiat and with other peoples along the coast to Prince William Sound. Calling them Inuit would be giving them an outsider's name.

Losing words complicates speech. I recently encountered this problem while writing about the history of European sailors who came to Alaska to map its coast and report back what they found. That's a long way of saying they explored, but my editor (not at ADN) ruled out using the word 'explore' because, like the word 'discover,' it suggests that Alaska was empty, when in fact it had already been discovered and explored by its first people.

I think Vitus Bering did explore and discover Alaska from the point of view of Europeans, in the same way tourists explore and discover Alaska today from their own point of view (although I appreciate that they don't claim to own it, as he did). But I understand the editor's concern that we can't sit down and explain that concept to every potentially offended reader.

The most severe linguistic crisis surrounds words for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. A couple of years ago, before speaking on a radio show on gender issues, I asked a lesbian community leader to define the new initials being added to LGBT— some people are now using LGBTQIA — and couldn't get a clear explanation even from her. With some transgender people asking to be called the plural "they" rather than "he" or "she," the English major in me begins to feel desperate.

I doubt I'm the only well-meaning non-LGBTQIA person (if that's what I am) who simply steers clear of certain topics to avoid using the wrong word and offending someone.

We'll muddle through. Society is changing rapidly and our brains haven't all received all the new mental software patches. By the time we do, maybe advocates for groups will also realize there is a point of diminishing returns for renaming.

I asked Sambo Donough about Alaska Native groups that haven't decided themselves what they should be called.

"This suggests something really important, Coolie," she said, using my long-discarded nickname from high school. "To me, this suggests the fact that indigenous communities in Alaska have not had the political and intellectual space to have that conversation. They haven't arrived at a consensus. … I think what we're seeing, especially amongst the younger generation, is individuals who want to answer that question, and are thinking about their identity as individuals and the collectivity that they are attached to, and in certain areas it is becoming clearer and has crystallized about who we are as Native people."

Cheers to that effort. We need a new synonym for Eskimo. In the meantime, please don't take offense.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. Reach him at

Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification

Oh, dear. It had to happen. People are so convinced that language is all about words. The New Scientist's interview with Alexandra Aikhenvald about working with endangered languages, cited recently by Mark Liberman, even got assigned "For want of a word" as its headline -- the familiar nonsense about language being a question of how many words you've got. Aikhenvald (known as Sasha to her friends, i.e., just about everybody who's ever met her) has done most of her fascinating work on grammar (and some sociolinguistics), not lexicography. So faced with a question about a favorite difference between languages she picked evidentials (required sentence marking of the evidential basis for the statement made). But the interviewer, Adrian Barnett, knew about (and probably shares) the general public's lust for word lore, so of course he forced vocabulary into the conversation: "And what about different types of vocabulary?" And so it was that, knowing what was expected of her, Sasha dutifully commented on the Eskimoan languages:

Sasha speaks fast; sometimes too fast. I think I see what she might have meant, but what she said here (or what Barnett scribbled down in his notes, perhaps) is highly misleading at best: it actually suggests there is an answer to the perennial question, namely 150. Not so.

Here's a replacement answer that she could have given. It's a bit closer to the extremely complex truth (for which you should consult a proper Eskimologist; I have merely an interested onlooker's acquaintance with this topic, but I've done a little reading in widely available sources like the Comparative Eskimo Dictionary).

That does not mean there are huge numbers of unrelated basic terms for huge numbers of finely differentiated snow types. It means that the notion of fixing a number of snow words, or even a definition of what a word for snow would be, is meaningless for these languages. You could write down not just thousands but millions of words built from roots that refer to snow if you had the time. But they would all be derivatives of a fairly small number of roots. And you could write down just as many derivatives of any other root: fish, or coffee, or excrement.

And the derivatives wouldn't all be nouns. If you wanted to say "They were wandering around gathering up lots of stuff that looked like snowflakes" (or fish, or coffee), you could do that with one word, very roughly as follows. You would take the "snowflake" root qani- (or the "fish" root or whatever); add a visual similarity postbase to get a stem meaning "looking like ____"; add a quantity postbase to get a stem meaning "stuff looking like ____"; add an augmentative postbase to get a stem meaning "lots of stuff looking like ____"; add another postbase to get a stem meaning "gathering lots of stuff looking like ____"; add yet another postbase to get a stem meaning "peripatetically gathering up lots of stuff looking like ____"; and then inflect the whole thing as a verb in the 3rd-person plural subject 3rd-person singular object past tense form; and you're done. Astounding. One word to express a whole sentence. But even if you choose qani- as your root, what you get could hardly be called a word for snow. It's a verb with an understood subject pronoun.

Of course, you can make lots of noun derivatives too. But although various lists of supposed snow words are passed around (public libraries in Alaska compile them, Canadadian Indian affairs bureaux hand them out, skiing magazines publish them, that sort of thing), they fail to back up the familiar myth. These lists tend to cite multiple derivatives of the qani- root; they usually have a bunch of derivatives of the api- root; they often include a word for a sort of rain-pockmarked snow that looks like herring scales, only that word is visibly based on the root meaning "herring"; they include a word for soft snow that is clearly based on the root meaning "soft"; and so on.

So, Eskimoan languages are really extraordinary in their productive word-building capability, for any root you might pick. But that very fact makes them exactly the wrong sort of language to ask vocabulary-size questions about, because those questions are virtually meaningless -- unless you ask them about basic non-derived roots, in which case the answers aren't particularly newsworthy.

That's the sort of thing Sasha would probably have said in the interview if she'd had another few seconds.

[Thanks to Mark Seidenberg for a comment by email that enabled me to make this clearer.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 30, 2004 01:14 PM

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