Devlin's Angle

February 1997

Eskimo Pi

As everyone knows, in the last century, the State of Indiana passed a law legislating the value of pi to be 3.

Well, perhaps it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that everyone knows it, but most people do. But that alone is very odd, since it is not true.

If you go and search the records of the Indiana House of Representatives, what you will find is that there was a bill passed that related to pi, House Bill No. 246 to be precise. What this 1897 bill did was offer the State of Indiana an angle trisection, a cube duplication, and a circle quadrature. Obviously, a misguided amateur mathematician had managed to persuade a legislator that he had something of value to offer.

Though it passed in the House, the bill had less success when it went to the State Senate. Admittedly it is unlikely that any of the good senators of Indiana was able to evaluate the claims made in the bill, but they nevertheless had the good sense to consider it not a proper matter for the law. They postponed any action on the matter, and so it has remained ever since.

The full Indiana pi story (yes, there's more to it) is recounted by Underwood Dudley in his excellent book Mathematical Cranks, published by the MAA in 1992.

The odd thing about the whole affair is not that some midwestern crackpot deluded himself into thinking he had made a great mathematical discovery, nor that a bunch of busy lawmakers saw little harm in accepting what seemed like a free gift from one of their citizens. No, what is odd is the way the "legislating pi" story not only became established, but persevered in the face of all the facts. I have no great hopes that this article will be any more successful in stopping the myth any more than did the appearance of Dudley's book.

At least we can console ourselves that we are not alone. Just about every discipline has its collection of enduring myths. For instance, what about that well-known observation that the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow?

The standard explanation for this durable linguistic factoid is that snow plays an important part in the life of an Eskimo, so they need lots of ways to describe it. Both the observation and more expansive versions of the explanation can be found in numerous books and articles on linguistics. Unfortunately, for all its ubiquity, the observation is false, as is the familiar explanation.

The whole sorry saga was released to an eager world a few years ago in a book called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, written by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum, of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Pullum based his account on some fine detective work by the anthropologist Laura Martin.

According to Martin, as recounted by Pullum, the story has its origins in an observation of the founder of American linguistics, Ralph Boas (1858--1942). In 1911, in the introduction to his book The Handbook of North American Indians, Boas mentioned, in passing, that Eskimos have four distinct words for snow, aput for snow lying on the ground, gana for falling snow, piqsirpoq for drifting snow, and qimuqsuq for a snow drift, whereas English can only make similar distinctions by means of phrases involving the one word 'snow' (such as 'drifting snow', 'falling snow', etc.).

And there things remained--no flurry of snow stories, if you will forgive the pun--until 1940, when Boas's observation was picked up by a gentleman called Benjamin Lee Whorf, who included it in a popular article "Science and linguistics", which was published in the MIT magazine Technology Review.

Whorf (1897--1941) had earned a degree in chemical engineering at MIT, became a fire prevention inspector with an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, and pursued linguistics as a hobby.

According to Whorf's Technology Review article, "We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow--whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow."

If you count up Whorf's examples, with the vague reference to "and other kinds of snow'' counting conservatively as two, you arrive at a figure of seven Eskimo words for snow. That is already three up on Boas. And as Pullum points out, numeric inflation is not the only problem with this passage. It simply is not the case the English has only the one word for all those kinds of snow. What about the perfectly respectable English words 'slush', 'sleet', and 'blizzard'? To which one could arguably add the words 'flurry' and 'dusting' and the skiers' words 'powder' and 'pack'.

With Whorf's article released to the world at large, over the years the story spread far and wide. And as the story spread, so the number of words grew: ten, twenty, fifty, reaching as many as a hundred in a New York Times editorial on February 9, 1984. As Martin says, "We are prepared to believe almost anything about such an unfamiliar and peculiar group [as the Eskimos].'' (What Martin would say about the good people of Indiana I'm not sure.)

So what is the real answer? How many words for snow do the Eskimos have? Well, such a question cannot possibly have a cut-and-dried answer. Which peoples are you going to count as 'Eskimos'? There are a number of tribes that you might or might not include. What exactly do you mean by 'a word'? If you allow derivation words, then English has a lot of words for snow: 'snowfall', 'snowbank', 'snowdrift', 'snowstorm', 'snowflake', and so on. However, if you decide to take a fairly hard line and ask for word roots, not derivations from those roots, then the answer varies between two and a dozen, depending on which peoples you count as Eskimos. That's right, the most you can reasonably claim is about twelve Eskimo words for snow. Not many more than in English in fact.

- Keith Devlin


Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Keith Devlin (devlin@stmarys-ca.edu) is the editor of FOCUS, the news magazine of the MAA. He is the Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California and the author of Mathematics: The Science of Patterns, published by W. H. Freeman in 1994 and Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind, published by John Wiley in 1997.

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