Eskimo words for snow

The claim that Eskimo languages (specifically, Yupik and Inuit) have an unusually large number of words for "snow", first loosely attributed to the work of anthropologist Franz Boas and particularly promoted by his disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf,[1][2] has become a cliché often used to support the controversial linguistic-relativity hypothesis (also known as "Whorfianism"), which posits that a language's vocabulary (among other features) shapes its speakers' view of the world. This "strong version" of the hypothesis is largely now discredited,[3] though the basic notion that Eskimo languages have many more root words for "snow" than the English language is itself supported by a 2010 study.[4][5]


Franz Boas did not make quantitative claims[6] but rather pointed out that the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word.[1][note 1] A good deal of the ongoing debate thus depends on how one defines "word", and perhaps even "word root".

The first re-evaluation of the claim was by linguist Laura Martin in 1986, who traced the history of the claim and argued that its prevalence had diverted attention from serious research into linguistic relativity. A subsequent influential and humorous, and polemical, essay by Geoff Pullum repeated Martin's critique, calling the process by which the so-called "myth" was created the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax". Pullum argued that the fact that the number of word roots for snow is about equally large in Eskimoan languages and English indicates that there exists no difference in the size of their respective vocabularies to define snow. Other specialists in the matter of Eskimoan languages and Eskimoan knowledge of snow and especially sea ice argue against this notion and defend Boas's original fieldwork amongst the Inuit of Baffin Island.[7][8]

Languages in the Inuit and Yupik language groups add suffixes to words to express the same concepts expressed in English and many other languages by means of compound words, phrases, and even entire sentences. One can create a practically unlimited number of new words in the Eskimoan languages on any topic, not just snow, and these same concepts can be expressed in other languages using combinations of words. In general and especially in this case, it is not necessarily meaningful to compare the number of words between languages that create words in different ways due to different grammatical structures.[1][9][note 2]

On the other hand, some anthropologists have argued that Boas, who lived among Baffin islanders and learnt their language, did in fact take account of the polysynthetic nature of Inuit language and included "only words representing meaningful distinctions" in his account.[5]

Studies of the Sami languages of Norway, Sweden and Finland, conclude that the languages have anywhere from 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 300 different words for types of snow, tracks in snow, and conditions of the use of snow.[10][11][12]

Origins and significanceEdit

The first reference[13] to Inuit having multiple words for snow is in the introduction to Handbook of American Indian languages (1911) by linguist and anthropologist Franz Boas. He says:

To take again the example of English, we find that the idea of WATER is expressed in a great variety of forms: one term serves to express water as a LIQUID; another one, water in the form of a large expanse (LAKE); others, water as running in a large body or in a small body (RIVER and BROOK); still other terms express water in the form of RAIN, DEW, WAVE, and FOAM. It is perfectly conceivable that this variety of ideas, each of which is expressed by a single independent term in English, might be expressed in other languages by derivations from the same term. Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, qana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, piqsirpoq, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT.[14]

The essential morphological question is why a language would say, for example, "lake", "river", and "brook" instead of something like "waterplace", "waterfast", and "waterslow". English has many snow-related words,[15] but Boas's intent may have been to connect differences in culture with differences in language.

Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind general semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having several words for snow:

We [English speakers] have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow hard packed like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable....[16]

Later writers, prominently Roger Brown in his "Words and things" and Carol Eastman in her "Aspects of Language and Culture", inflated the figure in sensationalized stories: by 1978, the number quoted had reached fifty, and on February 9, 1984, an unsigned editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred.[17] However, the linguist G. Pullum shows that Inuit and other related dialects do not possess an extraordinarily large number of terms for snow.

Defining "Eskimo"Edit

There is no one Eskimo language. A number of cultures are referred to as Eskimo, and a number of different languages are termed Eskimo–Aleut languages. These languages may have more or fewer words for "snow", or perhaps more importantly, more or fewer words that are commonly applied to snow, depending on which language is considered.

Three distinct word roots with the meaning "snow" are reconstructed for the Proto-Eskimo language[18] *qaniɣ 'falling snow', *aniɣu 'fallen snow', and *apun 'snow on the ground'. These three stems are found in all Inuit languages and dialects—except for West Greenlandic, which lacks *aniɣu.[19] The Alaskan and Siberian Yupik people (among others) however, are not Inuit peoples, nor are their languages Inuit or Inupiaq, but all are classifiable as Eskimos, lending further ambiguity to the "Eskimo Words for Snow" debate.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The seven most common English words for snow are snow, hail, sleet, ice, icicle, slush, and snowflake.[citation needed] English also has the related word glacier and the four common skiing terms pack, powder, crud, and crust, so one[who?] can say that at least 12 distinct words for snow exist in English.
    Querying the electronic Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition for entries defined using "snow" allows one to add blizzard, corn, cornice, drift, graupel, igloo, névé, sastruga (also spelled zastruga), and whiteout, and arguably others like scud and windrift. Further afield, querying it for ice entries to add to glacier adds cirrus, floe, frost, hummock, iceberg, icicle, rime, and serac, and perhaps brash and meltwater.[original research?] Pullum's book also mentions (p. 170) avalanche, dusting, flurry, and hardpack.
  2. ^ People who live in an environment in which snow or different kinds of grass, for example, play an important role are more aware of the different characteristics and appearances of different kinds of snow or grass and describe them in more detail than people in other environments. It is however not meaningful to say that people who see snow or grass as often but use another language have less words to describe it if they add the same kind of descriptive information as separate words instead of as "glued-on" (agglutinated) additions to a similar number of words. In other words, English speakers living in Alaska, for example, have no trouble describing as many different kinds of snow as Inuit speakers.


  1. ^ a b c Geoffrey K. Pullum's explanation in Language Log: The list of snow-referring roots to stick [suffixes] on isn't that long [in the Eskimoan language group]: qani- for a snowflake, apu- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning "slush", a root meaning "blizzard", a root meaning "drift", and a few others -- very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.
  2. ^ Panko, Ben (2016). "Does the Linguistic Theory at the Center of the Film ‘Arrival’ Have Any Merit?". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Magazine.
  3. ^ Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 54-55
  4. ^ Krupnik, Igor et al. (2010) "Franz Boas and Inuktitut terminology for ice and snow: from the emergence of the field to the 'Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax'". in Krupnik et al. (2010). SIKU: Knowing our Ice: Documenting Inuit Sea-Ice knowledge and Use. New York, NY: Springer. pp.385–410.
  5. ^ a b David Robson, New Scientist 2896, December 18 2012, Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?, "Yet Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington DC believes that Boas was careful to include only words representing meaningful distinctions. Taking the same care with their own work, Krupnik and others have now charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and conclude that there are indeed many more words for snow than in English (SIKU: Knowing Our Ice, 2010). Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, whereas the Inuit dialect spoken in Nunavik, Quebec, has at least 53, including matsaaruti, wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh's runners, and pukak, for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt. For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer."
  6. ^ "Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back". Language Log. 2013-01-15. Retrieved 2016-05-10.
  7. ^ Igor Krupnik, Ludger Müller-Wille, Franz Boas and Inuktitut Terminology for Ice and Snow: From the Emergence of the Field to the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax", SIKU: Knowing Our Ice, Springer Verlag, 2010.
  8. ^ "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception," by Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski (Historiographia Linguistica) 37, 2010, Pages 341-377
  9. ^ The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, Geoffrey Pullum, Chapter 19, p. 159-171 of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, Geoffrey K. Pullum, With a Foreword by James D. McCawley. 246 p., 1 figure, 2 tables, Spring 1991, LC: 90011286, ISBN 978-0-226-68534-2
  10. ^ Ole Henrik Magga, Diversity in Saami terminology for reindeer, snow, and ice, International Social Science Journal Volume 58, Issue 187, pages 25–34, March 2006.
  11. ^ Nils Jernsletten,- "Sami Traditional Terminology: Professional Terms Concerning Salmon, Reindeer and Snow", Sami Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sami Experience. Harald Gaski ed. Karasjok: Davvi Girji, 1997.
  12. ^ Yngve Ryd. Snö--en renskötare berättar. Stockholm: Ordfront, 2001.
  13. ^ "Martin, Laura. 1986. "Eskimo Words for Snow": A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example. American Anthropologist, 88(2):418" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-06-13.
  14. ^ Boas, Franz. 1911. Handbook of American Indian languages pp. 25-26. Boas "utilized" this part also in his book The Mind of Primitive Man. 1911. pp. 145-146.
  15. ^ Some of them are borrowed from other languages, like firn (German), névé (French), penitentes (Spanish) and sastrugi (Russian).
  16. ^ Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1949. "Science and Linguistics" Reprinted in Carroll 1956.
  17. ^ "There's Snow Synonym". The New York Times. February 9, 1984. Retrieved 2008-06-07.
  18. ^ Fortescue, Michael, Steven Jacobson, and Lawrence Kaplan. 1993. Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates, Fairbanks, Alaska Native Language Center
  19. ^ Kaplan, Lawrence. 2003. Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What Does It Mean? In: Building Capacity in Arctic Societies: Dynamics and shifting perspectives. Proceedings from the 2nd IPSSAS Seminar. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada: May 26-June 6, 2003, ed. by François Trudel. Montreal: CIÉRA -- Faculté des sciences sociales Université Laval. Archived 2012-10-02 at the Wayback Machine

Further readingEdit

  • Martin, Laura (1986). "Eskimo Words for Snow: A case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example". American Anthropologist 88 (2), 418-23. [1]
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1991). The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press. [2]
  • Spencer, Andrew (1991). Morphological theory. Blackwell Publishers Inc. p. 38. ISBN 0-631-16144-9.
  • Kaplan, Larry (2003). Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What Does It Mean?. In: Building Capacity in Arctic Societies: Dynamics and shifting perspectives. Proceedings from the 2nd IPSSAS Seminar. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada: May 26-June 6, 2003, ed. by François Trudel. Montreal: CIÉRA—Faculté des sciences sociales Université Laval. [3]
  • Cichocki, Piotr and Marcin Kilarski (2010). "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The life cycle of a linguistic misconception". Historiographia Linguistica 37 (3), 341–377. [4]
  • Krupnik, Igor; Müller-Wille, Ludger (2010), "Franz Boas and Inuktitut Terminology for Ice and Snow: From the Emergence of the Field to the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax"", in Krupnik, Igor; Aporta, Claudio; Gearheard, Shari; Laidler, Gita J.; Holm, Lene Kielsen (eds.), SIKU: Knowing Our Ice: Documenting Inuit Sea Ice Knowledge and Use, Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, pp. 377–99, ISBN 9789048185870
  • Robson, David (2012). Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?, New Scientist no. 2896, 72-73. [5]
  • Weyapuk, Winton Jr, et al. (2012). Kiŋikmi Sigum Qanuq Ilitaavut [Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary]. Washington DC: Arctic Studies Center Smithsonian.

External linksEdit