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.
How Many Words for Snow?
So you’re probably still wondering, “If it’s not 50 or 100 or 400 words, how many is it?” Well, Woodbury lists 15 that are present in a Yupik dictionary published in 1984, but he hedges that depending on how you look at it this is just a ballpark number. It could be 12; it could be 24. But it’s definitely not 100.
You’ll find five words for types of snow particles:
• Fine snow or rain particles
• Drifting particles
• Clinging particles
Five words for types of fallen snow:
• Fallen snow on the ground
• Soft, deep fallen snow on the ground
• Crust on fallen snow
• Fresh fallen snow
• Fallen snow floating on water
Three words for snow formations:
• Snow bank
• Snow block
• Snow cornice
Two words for meteorological events:
• Severe blizzard
The ‘Language Determines Thought’ Myth
Sometimes, the “hundred words for snow” myth is used beyond a cliché and is instead used to argue that because Eskimos have so many words for snow, they conceive of snow in ways that we can’t even begin to imagine—that your language determines or limits your thoughts.
I’m aware of at least a few other arguments like this that have also been debunked. For example, multiple languages have just one word that covers both the color blue and the color green. Researchers sometimes call these “grue” languages, “grue” being a portmanteau of “green” and “blue,” but people who speak these grue languages can still distinguish between blue and green. They recognize that they’re different colors even though they are covered by one word, in the same way that we recognize that light blue and dark blue are different colors even though we’d sometimes call them both just “blue.” There are some subtle differences—people who speak languages that distinguish between green and blue find it easier to accurately pick a bluish-green color they’ve seen earlier out of a group of swatches because it’s easier to remember something you have a distinct name for—but it’s not that they are better at recognizing or conceiving the difference between blue and green.
And finally, Whorf himself also put forth an argument that the Hopi language didn’t have words for time, and therefore the Hopi people had a different concept of time from Europeans, but this also has been proven wrong.
Languages are just different. They don’t determine what we are able to think about or are not able to think about. I can think about snow floating on water even if we don’t have a specific word for that in English.
We do seem to want these snowclone-like clichés though. While I was researching Eskimo words for snow, I came across other similar ideas:
- Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea have many words for yams.
- The Hanunó'o language of the Philippines has many words for rice.
- Australians have many words for sand.
- Arabs have multiple words for camel.
So when you’re out skiing or snowboarding or sledding or just shoveling your driveway this winter, notice that the snow is heavy and wet, or light and fluffy, or mashed potatoes like my stepmom calls the snow on the ski slopes in the afternoon sun, but don’t believe the people who try to tell you that Eskimos have 100 words for snow.
Pullum, Geoffrey. “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” 1991. University of Chicago Press.
Safire, William. “On Language; Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella.” New York Times, February 11, 1996.
Trask, Robert Lawrence. “Language: The Basics.” 1999. Routledge, London and New York.
Wierzbicka, Anna. “Understanding Cultures through Their Key Words: English, Russian, Polish.” 1997. Oxford University Press.
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