So many words for snow
11th September, 2015
You've probably heard that Eskimos have 100 words for snow, but you may also have heard that they only have two! It's an argument that's waged on for over a century, ever since anthropologist Franz Boas recorded the life and language of the Inuit people in his 1911 'Handbook of American Indian Languages'. In the 1950s, anthropologists and psychologists used the story as a way of looking at language and perception, but in 1991 Geoffrey K Pullum branded it 'the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax'. So what is the real answer and why has it confused people for decades?
With political correctness taking its hold in recent years you may have heard people say "You can't call them Eskimos anymore". There's a reason behind it: 'Eskimo' is actually a loose term that can mean any indigenous people of the arctic and subarctic regions of the US, Canada, Greenland and Siberia. It includes the Inuit, Yupik, Inuktitut and Kalaallit, and they speak a variety of languages, with multiple dialects of each, called the Eskimo-Aleut languages. That's partly why the story is so confusing: there is no single 'Eskimo language'.
Although each of the Eskimo-Aleut languages is different, they all have one thing in common: polysynthesis. Polysynthesic languages have a limited number of roots and word endings, which can be combined in different ways to create meaning. A base word can mean many things, depending what suffixes you add onto it, and can even become a whole sentence: for example, the Yupik word 'tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq' means 'he had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer', all spawned from the base word 'tuntu' (reindeer). This means that not only do the Eskimos have a lot of words for snow; they have a lot of words for everything.
West Greenlandic only has two roots for snow: 'aput' (snow on the ground) and 'qanik' (snow in the air), from which come words like 'apusiniq' (snowdrift) and 'qanipalaat' (feathery falling snow). Where in the English language we'd use an adjective and a noun, like 'melting snow' or 'fresh snow', Eskimo-Aleut languages use a single compound noun.
That isn't to say that the whole story is a complete myth. In 2010, anthropologist Igor Krupnik studied a range of Inuit and Yupik dialects and found that they did have many words for snow: Central Siberian Yupik has 40, while Nunavik Yupik has 53. Linguist K David Harrison found 99 Yupik words for sea ice, including 'nuyileq' (crushed ice that is dangerous to walk on). Meanwhile, Ole Herink Magga believes that the Sami people of Scandinavia and Russia have up to 1,000 lexemes denoting snow and ice, if you take into account all the different nouns, verbs and adjectives.
The idea that a culture has many words to describe something important to them does actually hold water: Hawaiians have 108 words for sweet potato and 47 for bananas, and Somali has 46 words for camel. In 2011, the New York Times published a column called the 'pluviocabulary', which contained 140 different words and phrases that describe rain in the English language.
There may be no real answer to the question of how many words the Eskimos have for snow, and it's unlikely there ever will be. With as little as 220,000 speakers, the Eskimo-Aleut languages and the indigenous way of life that comes with them are threatened by climate change and the number of people leaving their family traditions behind. With just 0.003% of the world's population keeping these languages alive, they may not survive much longer.