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Eskimo words for snow: Wikis


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It is a popular urban legend that the Inuit or Eskimo have an unusually large number of words for snow.

In reality, the number of words depends on the definitions of Eskimo (there are a number of Eskimo-Aleut languages) and snow, and on the method of counting numbers of words in languages that have quite different grammatical structures from English.[1]


Origins and significance

The first reference to Eskimo having multiple words for snow is in the introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians (1911) by linguist and anthropologist Franz Boas. He says:

...just as English uses derived terms for a variety of forms of water (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam) that might be formed by derivational morphology from a single root meaning 'water' in some other language, so Eskimo uses the apparently distinct roots aput 'snow on the ground', gana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift.

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 more than one snow-related word, but Boas' intent was to connect differences in culture with differences in language.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativism 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 seven distinct words for snow. Later writers 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.[2]

The idea that Eskimos had so many words for snow has given rise to the idea that Eskimos viewed snow very differently from people of other cultures. For example, when it snows, others see snow, but Eskimos could see any manifestation of their great and varied vocabulary. Vulgarized versions of Whorf's views hold not only that Eskimo speakers can choose among several snow words, but that they do not categorize all seven (or however many) as "snow": to them, each word is supposedly a separate concept. Thus language is thought to impose a particular view of the world — not just for Eskimo languages, but for all groups.[citation needed]

Focal vocabulary hypothesis

Part of the supposition is that Eskimo languages would have a focal vocabulary with several extra words to describe snow, which is specifically the point of Boas's theory. They deal with snow more than other cultures, just as artists have more words to describe the various details of their profession — what a non-artist calls "paint", the artist identifies as "oil paint", "acrylic paint", or "watercolor". This does not mean that these two individuals are observing two different objects, nor does it mean that the artist would be confused by the idea that oil paint and acrylic paint are related. Likewise in English, the words "blizzard", "flurry", "pack", "slush," "sleet," and "powder" refer to different types of snow, but all are recognized as varieties of "snow" in a general sense.

Defining "Eskimo"

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", depending on which language is considered.

Word boundary issues

There are several issues regarding the definition of "word":

  • Inflection can create several permutations of the same root (lexeme). (Most writers count lexemes, not inflectional variants, in their comparisons.)
  • Polysynthetic languages can mechanistically combine what would be several words in a phrase in another language into a single "word".
  • English compounds and compounds in other languages can be written with a space, creating controversy over whether a "word" should be defined by an orthographic word divider or by lexeme status (whether a compound has an independent entry in a dictionary or lexicon).
  • The same morpheme can appear in multiple lexemes, creating controversy over whether the lexemes are sufficiently "different".

Eskimo word synthesis

By some definitions of "word", the number of Eskimo words for snow is approximately as large as the number of English sentences that can contain the word "snow", because Eskimo languages (like many native North American languages) are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages allow noun incorporation, resulting in a single compound word that is the equivalent of a phrase in other languages (Spencer 1991). The Eskimo languages have systems of derivational suffixes for word formation to which speakers can recursively add snow-referring roots. As in English, there are a handful of these snow-referring roots, such as for "snowflake", "blizzard", "drift". What an English speaker would describe as "frosty sparkling snow" a speaker of an Eskimo language such as Inuinnaqtun would call "patuqun", and express "is covered in frosty sparkling snow" as "patuqutaujuq",[citation needed] much as an English speaker might use "sleet" and "sleet-covered". Arguably the concept is the same in both languages. This is true of things other than snow: "qinmiq" means "dog", "qinmiarjuk" "young dog", and "qinmiqtuqtuq" "goes by dog team".

Compounding and orthography

A word may be a compound and a compound may have a space in it. Thus, a word may have a space in it.

A dictionary definition of compound is 'a word made of words' like firefighter, study hour, and left-handed.[3] Thus, high school with a space is one word.

English compound elements that are themselves English words may be written open (e.g. particle board), hyphenated (e.g. particle-board), or solid (e.g. particleboard).[4]

A word pair over time often becomes a compound, definitely so in English when the primary stress is on the first element.[5]

Literary echo

German author Kathrin Passig refers to the urban legend in her award-winning short story “You are here” (Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2006):

“Eskimos, as the unimaginative would now interject, have all sorts of names for snow. This information is presumably intended to demonstrate the city dweller's blunted feel for nature. I have no sympathy for those who parrot this pedestrian theory. Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, which means that even seldom-used expressions like ‘snow that falls on a red T-shirt’ are combined into one word. It's so tiresome to have to keep pointing this out.”[6]

See also


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ "There's Snow Synonym". February 9, 1984. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  3. ^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 1966), entry, third compound, def. 1a.
  4. ^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 1966), The Writing of Compounds, section 1.1 (at p. 30a).
  5. ^ The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, by Kenneth George Wilson (N.Y.: Columbia Univ. Press, [casebound?] [1st printing?] 1993), entry COMPOUNDS, COMPOUNDING (1 entry).
  6. ^ See (translation by Lucy Powell)


  • 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.
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1991). The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press. [1]
  • Spencer, Andrew (1991). Morphological theory. Blackwell Publishers Inc. p. 38. ISBN 0-631-16144-9. 

External links


Lists of Eskimo words


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