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How Many Inuit Words for Snow?

People love to compare the number of "Eskimo" (or, more appropriately, "Inuit") words for snow to the number of words for something else in another language. The resulting comparison is called a snowclone, but the problem is the "Eskimos" don't actually have an unusually large number of words for snow.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
November 30, 2017
Episode #597

Page 1 of 3

An image of a snowman in a field to illustrate the concept of Eskimo words for snow.

NOTE: In unpacking the etymology of this expression, listener and Arctic researcher Katie sent me a bunch of helpful links and explained that “While there may be some indigenous groups in the global Arctic who still use the word ‘Eskimo,’ it is almost entirely inappropriate for southerners to use that term.” For example, in a 2015 Globe and Mail article, the president of Canada’s national Inuit organization wrote, “The word ‘Eskimo’ is not only outdated, it is now largely considered a derogatory term. When Inuit mobilized in the 1970s to protect our rights, we started using the term ‘Inuit’ to describe our people because that is our way of describing ourselves.” It also seems there is a very heated battle going on about whether to change the name of the Edmonton Eskimos football team to something else. For example, one op-ed by an Inuit researcher had the headline, “‘Edmonton Eskimos’ is a racial slur and it’s time to stop using it.”

Both dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster online say that “Eskimo” is sometimes considered to be offensive, and although the AP Stylebook entry on the word “Eskimo” does not say the word is derogatory, it does say that many native peoples in northern Canada use the term “Inuit” and that writers should call people what they ask to be called.

In the article below it is not my intention to be offensive but to debunk an expression. The fact that some people prefer not to be called "Eskimos" and that it can even sometimes be offensive are good things to know and just more good reasons to avoid the cliché about “Eskimos” having many words for snow. 

Since we’re heading into the snowy part of the year, at least in North America, it seems like a good time to address a long-standing language myth: that Eskimos have a vast number of words for snow.

The idea was popularized by the now well-known amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1940s, and especially after it made its way into popular anthropology textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s. Whorf himself wasn’t terribly specific. His number was approximately five Eskimo words for snow, but somehow the story was so compelling and romantic that it got out of control and grew bigger and bigger, like the fish that got away, with writers claiming 50, 100, and even 400 Eskimo words for snow. 

This idea has been debunked multiple times by modern linguists—first by Laura Martin at Cleveland State University and then by others—but it shows up again and again in the popular press and online. Every day people tweet about Eskimos having 50, 100, and more words for snow because whether it’s true or not, it seems to be a useful cliché to emphasize that something is important to a group of people. 

Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but Americans have 13 words for one type of sandwich (referring to the submarine, hoagie, hero, grinder, and so on).

Or that something should be important.

Eskimos have 100 words for snow. I wish we had 100 words for love. 

The concept is so widespread that Kate Bush titled her 2011 album “50 Words for Snow,” and Glen Whitman coined the term “snowclone” to refer to phrases that fit the pattern described by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003: If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y. As in “If Eskimos have 200 words for snow, Seattleites surely have 100 words for coffee.”

The problem is that, well, there are multiple problems with the concept of Eskimos having tons of words for snow.

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