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?

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Eskimos have a thousand words for snow, or something, right?

An Inuit musher prepares his dog sled team in Igloolik, Canada. Christopher Wilson / Reuters

You'll almost certainly have read a piece in which someone says "If the Inuit have 50 words for snow, surely Britons should have 50 words for 'rail replacement bus service'," or something along those lines. Here's one. Here's another, which claims that since Eskimos have X words for snow, the Japanese must have Y words for different kinds of porn. The trope is so common it's even got a name: "Snowclone". And it's false.

The myth that Eskimos or Inuit have some improbable number of words for snow (sometimes it's 50, sometimes it's as high as 400) is pervasive, but a myth nonetheless. In 1986, Laura Martin, a professor of modern languages at Cleveland State University, traced the origin of the claim back to a man called Franz Boas. In 1911, Boas wrote – as a throwaway line, illustrating a point about how languages resemble each other – that there are, as Martin paraphrases, "four lexically unrelated words for snow in Eskimo: aput 'snow on the ground', qana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift'". Boas didn't make much effort to distinguish between words, roots of words, and other terms, Martin says.

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.

An inukshuk, or Inuit stone landmark, in Nunavut, Canada. Chris Wattie / Reuters

Whorf seemed to be saying that there are a minimum of seven Eskimo words for snow (falling, on the ground, packed, slushy, wind-driven, and "other kinds", presumably at least two). And from there it exploded. Roger Brown's Words and Things claimed that there were exactly three Eskimo words for snow (based apparently on a drawing in Whorf's paper). Soon after that, the linguist Carol Eastman claimed "many". Academic textbooks started quoting it as fact. After that, the myth left textbooks and joined popular culture, mutating wildly as it did so. Martin points out that the 1978 Lanford Wilson play The Fifth of July gave the number as 50. A New York Times editorial said 100. Pullum quotes another NYT piece that claimed "four dozen". From there, it became just another thing everybody knows, like the one about tomatoes being fruit. But it's not true.

First, there isn't one "Inuit language".

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There are the Yupik languages, spoken in parts of Alaska and in a few villages in far-eastern Russia, and there are the Inuit languages, spoken mainly in Greenland and Canada. They're both part of the wider Eskimo-Aleut language family.

And it's not true to say that any of those languages have 200 "words for snow".

Part of the confusion arises from what we mean by the word "word".

Ryan North / Dinosaur Comics / Via qwantz.com

The Eskimo-Aleut languages are "agglutinative" languages, meaning that they construct complex words out of smaller units. Hungarian and Turkish do similar things. As Dave Wilton of the University of Toronto says in this Oxford Dictionaries blog post, "the West Greenlandic word siku, or 'sea ice', is used as the root for sikursuit, 'pack ice', sikuliaq, 'new ice', sikuaq, 'thin ice', and sikurluk, 'melting ice'." It's not that there are a particularly large number of snow-words in Eskimo-Aleut languages, it's that instead of saying "packed snow" or "wet snow", they say something like "packedsnow" or "wetsnow". Just as we could make any number of sentences out of bits like that – "firm packed snow that has been driven by the wind" – so Eskimo-language speakers can do that, except they build them into single words. Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh, says:

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.