This post is about something that’s been bothering me over the course of my research. Often times I come across books and essays offhandedly claiming that “the Eskimo have thousands of words for snow” somewhere when talking about various aspects of language. For one, that seems like an over generalization when the term is commonly used to refer to a whole swath of northern native American cultures, not to mention the fact that it’s commonly seen like a derogatory term. But is there any truth to the statement? Let’s investigate.
The most commonly spoken Inuit language is the Greenlandic Kalaallisut, with 57,000 speakers, followed by Inuktitut as spoken in Eastern Canada (34,100 speakers) and then Inupiatun as spoken in Northern Alaska by 13,500 speakers. These, plus other variations spoken by less than 10,000 people appear to be somewhat similar (although not exactly mutually intelligible, as in the case of Mediterranean languages) as they all descend from a language once spoken in northeastern Siberia. AboutWorldLanguages offers a list of all the words for snow in Inuit languages: aniu, apijaq, aput, isiriartaq, katakartanaq, kavisilaq, kinirtaq, mannguq, masak, matsaaq, natiruvaaq, pukak, qannialaaq, qannik, qiasuqaq, qiqumaaq.
Not quite a thousand, yet still an impressive amount of words to describe a single thing. But is it a single thing? McWhorter points out in The Power of Babel that English has different words for snow, too: snow, sleet, hail, slush, powder, thaw, flurries, frost, and so, excluding composite words that use the word snow somewhere like snow bank. So, as it turns out, a culture that lives in one of the coldest climates on Earth has developed a lot of names for snow, describing different states and consistencies of it. But on the other hand, many languages that developed in Western cultures have those, too, such as the case in German with Schnee, Frost, Schneematsch, Schneedecke, Firn, Schneeregen, Weiß, etc.
John McWhorter, The Power of Babel.