People love to compare the number of 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 Inuit don't actually have an unusually large number of words for snow.
What Is an Eskimo, Really?
First, linguistically, Eskimos aren’t exactly one thing. The people you may think of as Eskimos live in a broad region that covers parts of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and eastern Siberia, and they speak at least two different languages—Inuit and Yupik—and those languages have multiple dialects.
Just as we talked a few weeks ago about how English and many other languages trace back to a common language called Proto-Indo-European, Inuit and Yupik trace back to a different common language called Eskimo-Aleut. So saying Eskimos have 100 words for snow is kind of like saying Europeans have 100 words for monarchs. It might be telling you something broad about culture, but it isn’t really telling you much about language.
What Is a Word, Really?
The second problem is “What is a word?” That may seem like a picky question, but it matters because the Inuit and Yupik languages make words in different ways from how we make words in English. For example, these are what are called agglutinative languages, which sounds like the word “glue” because the words share the same Latin origin. Agglutinative languages “glue” meanings together (technically, morphemes). Agglutinative languages you might be more familiar with include Japanese and Esperanto.
Dave Wilton explained agglutination well in an Oxford Words blog post with respect to the so-called Eskimo words for snow. He wrote,
“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.’”
But it’s not that West Greenlandic has so many more words for describing snow than English, it’s just that West Greenlandic expresses ideas by gluing meaningful units of language together into one word whereas English uses more phrases and compounds. We express all the same ideas—sea ice, pack ice, new ice, thin ice, and melting ice—we just do it a little differently given the way our language is constructed.
Think of it this way. Start with a lexeme. That’s essentially a unit of meaning. It’s the word you see when you look up something in the dictionary. For example the verb “look” is a lexeme. Then you have different ways of inflecting it—different forms of the lexeme. We have a few in English. In this case, “looked,” “looking,” “looks,” and so on. But the Inuit and Yupik languages are highly inflectional. According to an article by Anthony Woodbury, a linguist at the University of Texas at Austin, one Yupik noun lexeme can have more than 280 inflectional forms.
Are you going to start with the lexeme for “snowflake” and then call every single one of those 280 inflectional forms a separate word? That doesn’t make sense, but it’s one way that people misunderstand how many words there are for “snow.”