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Do the Eskimos Really have 50 Words for Snow?

As Franz Boas travelled through the snowy landscape of Baffin Island during the 1880s on his quest to understand the Inuit people and their way of life, he became fascinated by the number of different words they used for the various types of snow, from piegnartoq, meaning snow that is firm enough for driving a sled on, to aqilokoq, meaning softly falling snow. His claim that there were more than 50 different words for snow was made in his 1911 publication A Dictionary of American Indian Languages and quickly became fixed in the public imagination.

Whether the claim is true or not, it led to a debate that has continued in linguistic circles ever since. Some of the confusion arises from the nature of Eskimo languages. Both Inuit and Yupik, the two main branches of the language, have many differing dialects, but they all have in common the feature of polysynthesis, which allows speakers to add a lot of information to a base word by adding suffixes. Information that would take a whole sentence in English can be communicated in a single (long) word. This makes the definition of words particularly difficult: does a base with various endings constitute different words or is it rather a single idiom with individual descriptive flourishes attached? Many linguists believe that the vocabulary lists compiled by Boas confused the two.

However, recent research undertaken by anthropologist Igor Krupnik at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington found that Inuit and Yupik languages do indeed have many different words for snow. He claims that Boas was careful to include only words with meaningful distinctions in his dictionary. Krupnik and other researchers studied the vocabulary of 10 dialects from both the Inuit and Yupik languages and conclude that there really are many more different words for snow than there are in English. The Inuit dialect of Canada’s Nunavik region has 53 words for snow, including pukak for powder snow that looks like salt crystals and matsaaruti for the slushy snow that is useful for icing a sled’s runners. In the other branch of the language, Central Siberian Yupik dialects have at least 40 such words. Read more