How many words do scholars have for “How many words do Eskimos have for snow”?

The photos above were taken from a book on mountains (the title of which I had forgotten to note) whilst on a winter break. I remember feeling vaguely superior to the author of the mountain book as I vaguely recalled the “debunking” of the Eskimo-languages-have-so-many-words-for-snow myth. Then I promptly forgot about the issue till @EngliciousUCL tweeted a study by Regier et. al. (2016) called “Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited”.

This study makes the point that in all the fuss about the status of the Eskimo words for snow an underlying principle has not been tested, that is “language is shaped by the need for efficient communication”. The authors go on to demonstrate the support for this principle.

This post is a limited attempt to list interesting articles written by scholars on the Eskimo snow words topic either for the public or more specialist audiences.

So back to the question – How many words do scholars have for “How many words do Eskimos have for snow”? There are at least 40000 words using the following references:

As mentioned the above is a limited list as this does not include texts with a passing mention of “Eskimo words for snow” and/or that use it as a prompt for other related examples (many of which you can find by doing a search in Language Log). For texts before Martin (1986), Cichocki and Marcin (2010) provide a comprehensive history.

The Language Log blog is also the stomping ground of the author of one of the most popular descriptions of the refutation of the “How many words do Eskimos have for snow” – Geoffrey Pullum.

To recap Pullum (1991) following Martin (1986) points out that the number of distinct words, defined as root forms, that Eskimo/Inuit languages have for snow is four. This number is taken from the text published by the anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911. The problems of identifying what are words is compounded in Inuit languages as they often add bases together to form whatever description they need. Hence the number of words for snow or for seals or for ice is unbounded. The number of sentences in English to describe say a wintry scene is similarly infinite.

Bearing the above in mind, specialists in Eskimo/Inuit languages such as Kaplan (2003) say the number of root forms amount to 3. Whilst other specialists like Woodbury (1991) gives 15 lexeme meanings, where a lexeme is similar to a root.

One study of several Eskimo dictionaries by Krupnik & Müller-Will (2010) argues that independent words that are derived from roots represent “a meaningful and clearly distinguishable phenomenon to indigenous speakers”. Hence the number of ways Eskimo languages describe snow is quite rich, even more so for words to describe ice. They add if you really want a language with a 100 words for snow look to the Norwegian Sámi.

This shallow trek into the Eskimo words for snow trope brings up a couple of points – 1) how various factoids one learns about language often hides more interesting principles as Regier et. el. (2016) show; 2) how using English as a comparison language as well as the metalanguage of comparison may result in erroneous native speaker intuitions projected onto a language with a very different classification system (Silverstein 1991).

I’ll leave you with a question asked to Michael Silverstein one of the players in the early drama:

I asked Silverstein if he had ever thought about popularizing the field of linguistics in the way academics in other disciplines have.


He recoiled. “That’s an ethical question,” he said. “There are people who are scientific evangelists, who are no different in kind than any other evangelist. I’m enough of a Menckenite to be a skeptic–that is to say, to realize that my claim to systematic knowledge of a social phenomenon is just one more thing that might go into the hopper of whatever the phenomenon happened to be. One might say that that’s just not the kind of phenomenon that responds to that sort of treatment. ‘You just think you’re studying it, you’re not really studying it; what the phenomenon is is exactly what John Simon says it is, and pooh-pooh on all of your stuff.’ Because, remember, the phenomena are us.”

(Watch Your Language! Anthropological Linguist Michael Silverstein on Australian Aborigines, Wine Nuts, Dear Abby, and the Language Police by Bill Wyman, February 14 1991)

Thanks for reading.


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