We’ve all heard the trope about Eskimos having 50 – or 100, or several hundred – words for snow. The idea has drifted into our public imagination where it charms with its poetry and suggestion of simplicity. The beauty of a culture so connected to its natural environment is hard to deny.
But is it really true? As it turns out, the snowy supposition has been the topic of hot debate by linguists for years.
It all started in the late 19th century when anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas spent time in the icy wilds of Baffin Island in northern Canada studying the local Inuit communities. Of his many observations, the one that Eskimos have dozens, if not hundreds, of words for snow has perhaps been one of Boas' most enduring legacies. Yet over the ensuing years, language experts disparaged the concept, accusing Boas of slapdash scholarship and hyperbole.
And ever since, linguists have been trying to dismiss the so-called myth of his winter wonderland of words. In one essay, "The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax," the writer goes so far as to describe Boas’ claims as, "the embarrassing saga of scholarly sloppiness and popular eagerness to embrace exotic facts about other people's languages without seeing the evidence. The fact is that the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax perpetrated by the anthropological linguistics community on itself."
How many words are there for "ouch"?
But there's good news for those of us who love the idea that there really could be so many words for snow – and why shouldn’t there be? Snow is a beautifully complicated phenomena. Recently Boas’ theory has been gaining traction from linguists taking a closer look at the snow conundrum.
First of all, it should be noted that there is no single language known as "Eskimo" (or Eskimoan or even Eskimo-ese). As linguist Arika Okrent points out, "Eskimo" is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik peoples who live in the polar regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia. "They speak a variety of languages, the larger ones being Central Alaskan Yupik, West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Inuktitut. There are multiple dialects of each." Some have more words for snow than others, she adds.
An Eskimo family in Noatak, Alaska, circa 1929. (Photo: Edward Sheriff Curtis/Wikimedia Commons)
Within the Eskimo family of languages there exists a formation called polysynthesis, which allows one word to take on various suffixes for different meanings. Because of this function, Boas’ detractors decided that many of the words were too similar to be considered separate.
But Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C, has concluded that Boas only counted words that were different enough to be distinguished on their own, and that he did so with care. "Taking the same care with their own work," New Scientist reports, "Krupnik and others charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and concluded that they indeed have many more words for snow than English does."
And with so many dialects within the family, the list is quite extensive. The Washington Post notes that Central Siberian Yupik has 40 terms for snow, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53. The list goes on, and when one considers other snow-bound cultures, the words are practically endless.
Ole Henrik Magga, a linguist in Norway, points out that the Northern Scandinavian Sami use more than 180 words related to snow and ice, and have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer!
But why such snowy exuberance? Language evolves to suit the needs of its speakers. If you live in a harsh environment, it makes sense that language would follow the lead. "These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it," says linguist Willem de Reuse at the University of North Texas. "It’s a matter of life or death."
"All languages find a way to say what they need to say," agrees Matthew Sturm, a geophysicist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. For him the fascination isn’t about finding an exact number of words, but rather, the expertise these words convey.
As more and more indigenous people are becoming detached from traditional customs, the knowledge contained within their vocabulary is fading. Because of this, experts like Krupnik are trying to compile and provide dictionaries to local communities to help ensure their lasting heritage.
As Sturm notes, the Inuit knowledge of different kinds of snow and ice formations, and how they are created, is formidable. One elder, he says, "knew as much about snow as I knew after 30 years as a scientist." For Sturm, documenting and preserving this knowledge is much more important than counting exactly how many words for snow there are.
So yes, it would seem that there are at least 50 words for snow, but perhaps the more relevant question is whether or not they will endure.
With that in mind, here are some our favorites, as complied by Phil James from SUNY Buffalo:
Kriplyana: snow that looks blue in the early morning.
Hiryla: snow in beards.
Ontla: snow on objects.
Intla: snow that has drifted indoors.
Bluwid: snow that is shaken down from objects in the wind.
Tlanid: snow that's shaken down and then mixes with sky-falling snow.
Tlamo: snow that falls in large wet flakes.
Tlaslo: snow that falls slowly.
Priyakli: snow that looks like it's falling upward.
Kripya: snow that has melted and refrozen.
Tlun: snow sparkling with moonlight.