The myth about “Eskimo” words for snow is more than half a century old. Where did it come from, and why does it refuse to die?
Eskimos have a thousand words for snow, or something, right?
You'll almost certainly have read a piece in which someone says "If the Inuit have 50 words for snow, surely Britons should have 50 words for 'rail replacement bus service'," or a joke along those lines. Here's one. Here's another, which claims that since Eskimos have X words for snow, the Japanese must have Y words for different kinds of porn. The trope is so common it's even got a name: "Snowclone". And it's false.
The myth that Eskimos or Inuit have some improbable number of words for snow (sometimes it's 50, sometimes it's as high as 400) is pervasive, but a myth nonetheless. In 1986, Laura Martin, a professor of modern languages at Cleveland State University, traced the origins of the claim back to a man called Franz Boas. In 1911, Boas wrote – as a throwaway line, illustrating a point about how languages resemble each other – that there are (as Martin paraphrases) "four lexically unrelated words for snow in Eskimo: aput 'snow on the ground', qana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift'." Boas didn't make much effort to distinguish between words, roots of words, and other terms, Martin says.
An Inuit musher prepares his dog sled team in Igloolik, Canada. Christopher Wilson / Reuters
The myth began to take hold in the 1940s, when a man called Benjamin Whorf wrote about Eskimo vocabulary.
Whorf is a major – and majorly controversial – figure in the study of language. He's the man behind the largely debunked Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, which says that the words we know dictate the thoughts we can have. His claim was that because Eskimos have extra words for snow, they are capable of thinking about snow in ways that we can't. He seems to have taken Boas's four vague examples, and in a 1940 Technology Review article called "Science and linguistics" he expanded upon them:
We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.
Whorf seemed to be saying there are a minimum of seven Eskimo words for snow (falling, on the ground, packed, slushy, wind-driven, and "other kinds", presumably at least two). And from there it exploded. Roger Brown's Words and Things claimed that there were exactly three Eskimo words for snow (based apparently on a drawing in Whorf's paper). Soon after that, the linguist Carol Eastman claimed "many". Academic textbooks started quoting it as fact. After that, the myth left textbooks and joined popular culture, mutating wildly as it did so. Martin points out that 1978 Lanford Wilson play The Fifth of July gives the number as 50. A New York Times editorial says 100. Pullum quotes another NYT piece a year later claiming "four dozen". From there, it's become just another factoid, something everybody knows, like the thing about tomatoes being fruit. But it's not true.
An inukshuk, or Inuit stone landmark, in Nunavut, Canada. Chris Wattie / Reuters