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Friday, December 03, 2004

Believe Your World.

"Eskimo" words for snow
by Steven J. Derose, January 1999

Like most of us, I've heard many times about how many words people from snowy cultures have for snow. I've always found it implausible, but recently I found a beautiful account of this urban myth in Geoffrey K. Pullum's book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (University of Chicago Press, 1991; and of course available from Amazon)

How many already?

Pullum cites several sources on how many words certain Inuit dialects actually have for snow. The two main ones are:

The Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (C. W. Schultz-Lorentzen, Copenhagan: Reitzels, 1927) gives just two words: qanik for snowflakes in the air, and aput for snow on the ground.

The Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary (Steven A. Jacobson, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, 1984) has, according to Pullum's colleague Anthony Woodbury, about 24 if you're very generous. By "very generous", I mean including words for "stuff for sinking habitually into", "blizzard", "avalanche", and so on.

So 24 seems to be about the outer limit that could be defended, at least for Yup'ik. Unless, of course, there is an undiscovered dialect whose speakers make a living by coining new snow-words and selling them to journalists.... No one seems to have checked on that possibility.

Oh yeah, does English have any words for snow?

It is only fair to see how many snow-words we can find in English. I didn't even poke around the OED yet, but even if we skip the inflected forms (snows, snowed, snowing, snowy, snowness, snew, snewn,... well, we weren't going to count those anyway), there is still a veritable hail of terms:


I can't imagine I've listed anywhere near all the good candidates, but already that's 31. Which, by the way, is several more than the generous estimate for Inuit.

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