How ‘snow’ words started a linguistic kerfuffle

Does the language you speak determine what thoughts are possible and what things cannot be thought because your language lacks the words?


How many words for “snow” does English have? Are there more in, say, Inupiaq, an Inuit language spoken in northern Alaska and part of Canada? Last week we discussed why these are hard questions to answer. This week we’ll talk about how they have played a central role in a famous linguistic controversy regarding the extent to which the language a person speaks influences the way he or she thinks.

The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf first brought snow words to popular attention in 1940 when he argued, “We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow. ... To an [Inuit person], this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different.” This observation highlights the central idea of the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis, sometimes known as linguistic determinism or linguistic relativity. To Whorfians, the language you speak determines what thoughts are possible and what things cannot be thought because your language lacks the words.  

Speakers of Inuit languages, in Whorf’s view, could look at a winter landscape and distinguish aniu (snow for making water) from masak (wet snow), where English speakers could describe only plain snow. Whorf’s more controversial claim was that this extensive vocabulary enables speakers to experience snow more richly.

Linguistic determinism also implies that when a language lacks words for a thing, its speakers simply cannot think about that thing. Just because English doesn’t have a unique word for wind-driven flying snow doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it. Linguist Steven Pinker argues that Whorfianism “exaggerates the depth of the cognitive difference” between speakers of English and of Inuit languages. Even if Inuit people do pay more attention to varieties of snow, he continues, “all it would take is a shovelful of slush to get a non-[Inuit person] to notice the difference.” 

This is where empirical question meets controversy. Whorfians are invested in collecting as many Inuit words for snow as possible – the more words, the more interesting the Inuit understanding of the Arctic. It works better for anti-Whorfians if there are fewer Inuit snow words. It would be hard to argue that Inupiaq speakers have a deep affinity for snow if their language has about the same number of words for it as English does. So, how many Inuit snow words are there? If we try to abstract from the determinism debate, it seems that these languages do have more words. 

Smithsonian Arctic expert Igor Krupnik sums it up: “English vocabulary for snow ... is clearly inferior.”

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