The Inuit Don't Have 100 Words For Snow, So Why Does The Myth Persist?
The myth about “Eskimo” words for snow is more than half a century old. Where did it come from, and why does it refuse to die?
Eskimos have a thousand words for snow, or something, right?
The myth began to take hold in the 1940s, when a man called Benjamin Whorf wrote about Eskimo vocabulary.
Whorf is a major – and majorly controversial – figure in the study of language. He's the man behind the largely debunked Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, which says that the words we know dictate the thoughts we can have. His claim was that because Eskimos have extra words for snow, they are capable of thinking about snow in ways that others can't. He seems to have taken Boas's four vague examples, and, in a 1940 Technology Review article called "Science and linguistics", expanded upon them:
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.
First, there isn't one "Inuit language".
Part of the confusion arises from what we mean by the word "word".
The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn't that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- 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.
So not only do Eskimo languages not have "100 words for snow", but it's meaningless to talk about how many words they have for anything.
They have an infinite number of possible words for snow, and for grass, and music, and coffee, and everything else.
The myth is hard to kill. Pullum, in an essay called "The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax", says "The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality." It's too easy a joke to make, too simple a way of highlighting some perceived gap in Western understanding.
But it's a myth, nonetheless.