Most linguistics departments have an introduction-to-language course in which students other than linguistics majors can be exposed to at least something of the mysteries of language and communication: signing apes and dancing bees; wild children and lateralization; logographic writing and the Rosetta Stone; pit and spit; Sir William Jones and Professor Henry Higgins; isoglosses and Grimm’s Law;
Jabberwocky and colourless green ideas; and of course, without fail, the Eskimos and their multiple words for snow.
Few among us, I’m sure, can say with certainty that we never told an awestruck sea of upturned sophomore faces about the multitude of snow descriptors used by these lexically profligate hyperborean nomads, about whom so little information is repeated so often to so many. Linguists have been just as active as schoolteachers or general knowledge columnists in spreading the entrancing story. What a pity the story is unredeemed piffle… .
Don’t be a coward like me. Stand up and tell the speaker this: C.W. Schultz-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 any more.
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.
Geoffrey K. Pullum, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” (1989), in PDF.