Linguistic Anthropology

Do Eskimos actually have hundreds of words for "snow"?
Answered by Jennifer Horton
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  1. The widely circulated factoid that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow is problematic for many reasons. To start with, the term "Eskimo" could refer to any number of indigenous people living in the subarctic region stretching from Alaska and Canada to Greenland and far eastern Russia. Depending on the region, language and dialect, a more accurate name might be Inuit, Yupik or Aleut, three of the larger groups. The term Eskimo is a blanket term used to refer to any of the Eskimo groups and is commonly used among native groups in Alaska.

    Among all of these groups there are five languages, many of which are further broken down into subgroups and any number of dialects. Just between the eastern and western portion of Canada alone the differences in dialects are substantial.

    The main problem with the assumption that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, though, lies in the way the languages are constructed: Eskimo languages are agglutinative, meaning they tend to create large words out of many smaller ones. For instance, in English we use five words to say "look at that big snowman," whereas the Eskimos might create one single word to express the same thought. You can see how this could add up to 100 words for snow pretty quickly. Just keep adding on some new word or idea, and you suddenly have hundreds of words expressing some sentiment concerning snow. For instance, in one list of the so-called 100 Eskimo words for snow, entries include words like "tlayopi"(snow drifts you fall into and die), "tlapripta" (snow that burns your scalp and eyelids), and a personal favorite, "tlarin" (snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time). Pretty inventive stuff, you have to admit!

    In reality, the list of basic, snow-related root words is not that long. There's "qani" for snowflake, "api" for snow on the ground and several other words to indicate things like "slush," "blizzard" and "drift." It's simply because of the way Eskimoan languages stick suffixes on root words to form new words that people mistakenly perpetuate the 100-words-for-snow myth. If you're going to count every possible word you could derive from the basic roots, though, why stop at 100? I'm sure we can do better than that. The sky's the limit, people. Let's get going: snow is cold (1), snow would feel good right now because it's 100 degrees outside (2), snow falling on the ground in the middle of a hot summer day would be weird (3), but snow on my fingertips would be a good excuse to stop typing (4).

    Iceberg Calving
    The Hubbard Glacier calving in Alaska (Michael Melford/Getty Images)

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