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 50, and on February 9, 1984, an
editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred.
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.
"Eskimo" words for snow
by Steven J. Derose, January 1999. Last updated September,
Like most of us, I've heard many times about how many words people
from snowy cultures have for snow. I've always found it implausible, but
recently I found a beautiful account of this urban myth in Geoffrey K.
Pullum's book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (University of
Chicago Press, 1991; and of course available from Amazon) -- I highly
recommend this book. Since it also includes some relatively hard facts,
and since I really enjoyed reading it, I thought it worth putting up this
page about it.
Pullum cites a detailed article on the phenomenon, that I have not yet
obtained: Laura Martin, 1986. "Eskimo Words for Snow: A case study in the genesis and decay
of an anthropological example." American Anthropologist 88(2), pp. 418-423. She traces the
myth to Franz Boas' Introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians (at least 15
volumes, sadly out of print and going for $75+ per volume used). In that introduction he says
merely (as described by Pullum on p. 162):
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 [suffixes and other such
stuff] 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'.
From there Martin and Pullum trace the steady growth of exaggeration, starting with Whorf's
much quoted 1940 article that grows the word-count magically to 7, and eventually reaching
sources claiming totals as high as 400. Just a few weeks ago I sat across a table at dinner from
someone claiming to actually know "all 57 Eskimo words for snow" -- but I had neither a native
speaker nor Pullum's article at hand.
As Pullum deftly points out, the traditional claim is "Eskimos have N words for snow" (for
growing N) -- and every part of that claim is problematic:
• There is no single language "Eskimo", just as there is no single language "Indian". And,
like "Indian", "Eskimo" is not a very good name: it lumps together two major cultural
groups, the Inuit and Aleut, and ignores major differences (including huge language
variation) within each group.
• How do we count "words"? As a computational linguist (for you co-nerds, technically
that would be "corpus linguist", and my dissertation was on Hidden Markov Models for
part-of-speech disambiguation in American English and Koine Greek), I am innately
suspicious of any claim about enumerations of "words". What is a word, anyway? There
is no single definition (see below).
• What qualifies a word as being "for snow"? Surely it cannot mean the word must have
exactly the same range of applications as English "snow", or Eskimo surely has no words
for snow at all. Does Eskimo have a word for the grey mist in a poor TV picture? Just
how wide or narrow do we draw the boundaries, and how do we ensure we're drawing
them the same in the languages being compared?
What's a word, really?
Just deciding what we mean by "word" is subtle. For example:
• How do we count "go", "goes", and "went"? This is a way worse problem in many other
languages than in English; I learned several hundred forms per verb in Greek, and my
best estimate when studying Michif (related to Cree) was 5000 forms per verb.
• How do we count "dog" as in woof-woof, versus "dog" as in what you do to close a hatch
on a submarine, or to follow someone? What of "snow" meaning "to confuse"?
• How do we count "link end", "link-end", and "linkend", and other compound words?
When does a common phrase or idiom become a word?
• How do we count "love" versus "lovesong", "lovebird", "lovesick", and many more?
• Inuit and Aleut are agglutinative languages: they tend to assemble large words out of
many parts. English is more likely to use multiple "words" instead: "new fallen snow".
This pattern has nothing to do with snow; it's just part of how English, Inuit, and Aleut
differ in general.
Purveyors of the myth seem bound to include as many faintly snow-related phenomena as
possible when deciding which Eskimo words count, but to require perfect synonymy to "snow"
when deciding about English (thus leaving us but one "word for snow").
One example of this conveniently inconsistent definition is from a list of 20 ostensible Eskimo
snow-words that came to Pullum: igluqsaq. This is a compound word meaning 'house-building
material' (note the familiar 'iglu' at the beginning): it can mean plywood or brick just as well as
snow. If we pulled the same trick with English, we would start counting words like "etiology" (a
slip on snow can cause injury), "projectile" (you can throw snowballs), "food" (you can eat snow
as long as it's white), and so on. Hmmm.
So how many already?
Pullum cites several sources on how many words certain Inuit dialects actually have for snow.
The two main ones are:
• The Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (C. W. Schultz-Lorentzen,
Copenhagan: Reitzels, 1927) gives just two words: qanik for snowflakes in the air, and
aput for snow on the ground.
• The Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary (Steven A. Jacobson, Fairbanks: University of Alaska,
1984) has, according to Pullum's colleague Anthony Woodbury, about 24 if you're very
generous. By "very generous", I mean including words for "stuff for sinking habitually
into", "blizzard", "avalanche", and so on.
So 24 seems to be the outer limit that could be defended, at least for Yup'ik. Unless there are
speakers somewhere who make a living by coining new snow-words and selling them.... No one
seems to have checked on that possibility.
Oh yeah, does English have any words for snow?
It's only fair to see how many snow-words we can find in English. I didn't even poke around the
OED yet, but even if we skip the inflected forms (snows, snowed, snowing, snowy, snowness,
snew, snewn,... well, we weren't going to count those anyway), there is still a veritable hail of
berg, cornice, crevasse, floe, frost, glacier, hail, hardpack, hoarfrost, ice, iceball, icecap, iceberg,
ice field, icicle, powder, rime, snow, slush, sleet, snowball, snowcap
Not to mention a blizzard of words for the parts of snow and for snow as a weather condition:
avalanche, blizzard, dusting, flurry, ice crystal, ice storm
And the list snowballs as we notice compound words related to snow (excluding snow-related
objects like snowboards and snowshovels):
snowball, snowbank, snowcapped, snowdrift, snowfall, snowflake, snowlike, snowman,
And let us not forget the storm of words that are spelled with a space in them: phrases that have
(arguably, of course) become lexical items through frequent and distinctive use:
freezing rain, new-fallen snow, yellow snow, glare ice, purple wax snow (and a host of others
skiers can cite)
I can't imagine I've listed anywhere near all the good candidates, but already that's 40. Which, by
the way, is several more than the generous estimate for Inuit.
If we were as generous as some are for Eskimo, beyond those we'd add etiology, construction
material, food, weapon, toy, floor, projectile, sculpture, refrigerator, obstruction (reaching
double the total for Inuit), and probably dozens more. And we haven't even considered any
synonyms for "snow job" (a quick look in a thesaurus reveals over 100), "snow" on your TV,
and being "snowed" under.
And why should we care?
It is the conclusions drawn from this bizarre claim that puzzle me most. One seemingly popular
conclusion takes Whorf (of the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis") farther than perhaps even Whorf
would go, and suggests that such differences in vocabulary make cross-language communication
fundamentally impossible, or even make a notion of any underlying reality (accessible or not)
impossible. None of this of course follows. As Pullum again points out, anyone concerned about
a particular subject has a proportionately detailed vocabulary for it. There is little surprising or
interesting about this, and it doesn't seem to have much affect on communication, realism, or
anything else beyond signalling that you are (or aren't) an expert on a precise topic:
• I have precise words for things others would merely lump together and call "hypertext
• In reading a book on knife sharpening, I just discovered formal terminology for bits of
rock, carefully distinguished by diameters from 10 inches down to 0.00015 or so. They're
also described here.
• Wine tasters have another set of terms, far more detailed than I can use competently.
So if some language(s) did have many words for snow, it should be no more interesting than
these other everyday cases. But if you think about it, people who live in ever-snowful lands may
perhaps care no more about fine variations of snow, than we in warmer climes care about fine
variations of grass or pavement: anything so constant disappears into the background and
becomes less interesting.
And meanwhile in Greek
A similar common idea is that Greek is far better equipped to express "love" than English. We
poor benighted Anglophones have (alas!) but a single word, while those deeply philosophical
Greeks of old were blessed with four. And of course, they always used each one in precisely the
same way, and never let them overlap (oh yeah? Guess which term the Septuagint uses of
Amnon's feelings for Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-4).
Again, we can find more words in English if we try to cover the same range as the 4 Greek
words cover: adoration, affection, ardor, amourousness, attachment, caring, concern, cherishing,
compassion, devotion, enamorement, fancy, favor, fondness, liking, love, lust, passion,
tenderness -- to name but a few (19 to be precise).
Perhaps the myth arises from our need to count, to draw boundaries, to categorize; to pretend
things are simpler and clearer than they are. Oh well; that's my small contribution to de-bunking
a linguistic legend.
A few references
• Inuit Words for Snow by David Mendosa. Includes a tongue-in-cheek list of about 100
fictional words for snow, and some correspondence with Steven Pinker, author of The
• The Linguist List has discussed these issues on various occasions. One notable occasion
was volume 5, issue 1239 in 1994. It includes a nice piece by Anthony C. Woodbury,
Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide, which is also reposted here.
• The relevant Wikipedia entry is also helpful.
• Some discussion is provided by Stuart Derby here, along with a list of potential snow-
words (most of them compounds).
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Technologies Group Working Groups. Or, contact me via email (fix the punctuation).