There's an entire school of consultants committed to the proposition that language is a medium for change. (A belief rooted in the fact that consultants talk for a living, perhaps.)
Which brings us to snow.
In the lore of language-as-change, snow is the metaphor of choice. Eskimo snow, to be exact. The reason, as presented by consultants, is a blizzard of logic that goes like this: the Inuits have somewhere between 39 and 401 words for "snow" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language. According to consultants this proliferation demonstrates how important snow is in the Inuit culture — the precision of the language reflects the depth of the Inuit understanding of the exact nature of snow.
The message: learn from the Inuits. Change your language and change your company. Want to improve quality? Generate 39 different ways to talk about subtle differences in quality. Want to be more team-oriented? Find 39 different ways to discuss your commitment to teamwork. Want to be more customer-focused? Well, you get the picture.
Time for the Big Thaw.
We dispatched the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) to break the ice. First we consulted the academics. GeoVrey K. Pullum, 50, is professor of linguistics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and author of "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" and "Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language" (1991).
Says Pullum, "I was at the University of California Management Institute and I heard someone make the claim that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow and I said, 'I hate to be a wet blanket, but that's not true.' The very next day an industrial psychologist was giving a lecture and made the point again and I thought, 'Everybody's making this up!'"
We then spoke to Lawrence Kaplan, 46, an Eskimologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who teaches linguistics and Inupiaq. Kaplan echoes Pullum's book title: "It's a hoax."
For an indigenous word on the subject of words the CDU spoke with two Inuits. Methusalah Kunuk, who calls himself "very old," works in Iqaluit, Baffin Region, Northwest Territory, Canada, as the regional superintendent for the Department of Transportation. Says Kunuk, "It's just not true and it bothers me. We've heard that myth before. But I only know of two words for snow."
According to Lazarus Akeegok, 35, an officer for the Department of Transportation in Iqaluit, "That myth is just a snow job, really! It's not true. There aren't hundreds of words for snow."
For the record, C.W. Schultz-Lorentzen's "Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language" (1927) gives just two root words for snow: qanik, meaning "snow in the air" or snowflake, and aput, meaning "snow on the ground." And, according to our authorities, there are no words in Inuktitut for "consultant."
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.