Do the native peoples of the Arctic have more words for snow than English speakers do? This may sound like a simple question, but it has occasioned much impassioned debate among linguists. From 1940 to the ’80s, the answer was yes, although the precise number varied, from three to 200. The pendulum then swung the other way, with linguist Geoffrey Pullum dubbing this idea “the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax” in 1989.
Today, people who speak and study the languages of the Arctic have contributed new information and perspectives to the debate. Scholars such as Igor Krupnik, an Arctic specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, are more open to the idea that, as a 2013 Washington Post article puts it, “There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow.’”
Why is this question so hard to answer? First of all, the Arctic is full of languages. From Alaska to Greenland, Inuit and Yup’ik people speak dozens of languages and dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible.
The question of how many words for snow a language has depends on which language you’re talking about.
Then there is the issue of what counts as a word. Even making a list of words for snow in English can be difficult. Are snowy and snowbank unique words? What about terms that are rarely used, except by skiers – corn (“granular snow formed by alternate thawing and freezing”), for example?
It is even harder to decide what counts as a separate word in Inuit languages. They are polysynthetic, creating meaning by adding many different parts onto a stem.
What English speakers might express with a whole sentence, speakers of Inuit languages can say with one – very long – word. “I asked him to make a big kayak (but actually he has not made it yet)” can be qayarpaliqaasqessaaqellruaqa in Central Alaskan Yup’ik. Qayar, “kayak,” is the stem, the only part that can stand alone.
When linguists discuss Inuit snow terms, they tend to be referring to these stems – otherwise the number of Inuit words for snow would be infinite, just like the number of sentences we can construct about snow in English.
Finally, there’s the question of what should count as a term that picks out “snow.” Some lists, as Professor Pullum points out, include words like igluksaq, glossed as “snow for igloo making.” This term, however, actually means “house-building material” and can refer to snow, plywood, brick, etc.
These are some of the issues that make the question difficult to resolve. Next week we’ll talk about why people have cared so passionately about the answer.