Which Language Has the Most Words for Snow?

Have you ever wondered which language has the most words for snow?  Last week, Rich addressed the topic of whether or not “Eskimos” (aka Inuit, Yupik and related peoples) actually have 50 words for snow.  But did you know that other languages have even MORE words for snow?

It’s true! So, which language has the most words for snow? It’s probably impossible to say for sure. There are always questions about what counts as a word. For example, how do you count polysynthetic or compounding languages, where one “word” can contain as much information as some English sentences? Nevertheless, here is a list of the top contenders:

Inuit/Yupik Words for Snow: 40-50

This topic never fails to generate quite the controversy in linguistic circles, with some calling it “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” Rich cites new research from Igor Krupnik that shows Inuit languages do have around 40 to 50 words for snow, depending on the dialect.

Some examples:

  • Qanik: snow falling
  • Aputi: snow on the ground
  • Aniu: Snow used to make water
  • Maujaq (Nunavik): The snow in which one sinks

Swedish Words for Snow: 25

Swedish is another compounding language. So, depending on how you’re counting, it could either have many words for snow or very few. In this post, Neil Shipley manages to round up a respectable 25 Swedish words for snow. Here are some highlights:

  • Aprilsnö- Snow in April, an ominous sign of floods to come.
  • Kramsnö- Snow that can be easily shaped into snowballs
  • Lappvante- thick falling snow
  • Modd- Snow that has gone slushy due to salt
  • Åsksnö- Thundersnow, snow during a thunderstorm

Sami Words for Snow: 180

The Sami live in the far north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Traditionally, they were fishers, trappers and reindeer herders. As you might expect from Europe’s northernmost indigenous people, the Sami have at least 180 words for snow and ice. For example:

  • Cahki- A hard snowball, the kind that only sadistic people use in snowball fights
  • Guoldu- “A cloud of snow which blows up from the ground when there is a hard frost without very much wind.”
  • Skava- Very thin layer of frozen snow
  • Skavvi- “Crust of ice on snow, formed in the evening after the sun has thawed the top of the snow during the day.”
  • Soavli- Slushy snow
  • Vahca- Loose snow or new snow
  • Moarri: The kind of travel surface where frozen snow or ice breaks and cuts the legs of animals (like horses or reindeer)
  • Ciegar: Snowfield which has been trampled and dug up by reindeer.

But that’s nothing compared to how many words they have for reindeer: over 1000, according to some sources!

Icelandic Words for Snow: 46

According to Hulda at the Transparent Language blog, there’s an Icelandic proverb that claims the language has over a hundred words for snow.  That may be an exaggeration, but the Icelandic language does have a rich vocabulary of snow terminology. How many words do they have for snow? At least 46, according to TotalIceLand.com. Here’s some cool frozen Icelandic vocabulary for you:

  • Snjór/Snær: Snow
  • Mjöll: Fresh snow
  • Hjarn: Icy snow
  • Kafsnjór/kafaldi/kafald: deep snowdrifts
  • Krap/Slabb: Slushy snow mixed with water. Perhaps named after what English-speakers might say upon stepping in it?

Scots Words for Snow: 421

Which language has the most words for snow? According to researchers at the University of Glasgow, the winner is….Scots! They claim that Scots has 421 words for snow. Does it really? Here again, it’s all in how you count. The researchers came up with the list while working on a thesaurus for the Scots language. Their list includes quite a few compound words, and the folks at Language Log are quite skeptical of the “421 words” claim.  But it’s still impressive.

Scots language lecturer Dr Susan Rennie told the Telegraph, “The 421 words are all sorts of things to do with snow – the way that snow moves, the types of snow, types of snowflake, types of thaw, clothing you might wear in snow, the way that snow affects animals – we have even got a category for snow and the supernatural.”

Here are some of our favorite snow words in Scots:

  • Feefle: Snow swirling around a corner
  • Flindrikin: A light snow shower
  • Skelf: A large snowflake
  • Sneesl: To begin to rain or snow
  • Snaw-ghast: A ghost seen in the snow
  • Blin-drift: Drifting snow
  • Snow-smoor: Suffocation by snow
  • Snaw-broo: Melted snow
  • Glush- Melting snow
  • Ground-gru: Half-liquid snow or ice formed in early spring floating along the surface of a river.

Why so many words for snow? Dr. Rennie told the BBC, “Weather has been a vital part of people’s lives in Scotland for centuries. The number and variety of words in the language show how important it was for our ancestors to communicate about the weather, which could so easily affect their livelihoods.”

Is it snowing where you are? And if so, can you send some here, please? Feel free to discuss snow and how different languages describe it in the comments!

3 replies
  1. Tom Hoar
    Tom Hoar says:

    Thailand: zero. Yep. The Thai “word” for snow is actually a borrowed word abreviated from the Mimalaya Mountains, “hee-ma”. “Ice” is actually a compound word comprised of “hard liquid”.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *