The Eskimo for Snow

As everyone knows, the Eskimo do not have 49 words for snow. It is, if not an urban myth, then a polar one.

The story that they do was first put about by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boaz, who was making a point about our sensitivity to the variations in the natural world, and the tendency of language to accommodate itself to what is important to a culture. In fact there are roughly as many root words for snow in Eskimo as there are in English, but Eskimo languages can build words and variations on words with much greater flexibility than English (in a way analogous to compounding in German, I suppose). So it depends how you count.

Here, for the curious, are two words for snow in Sami, a language unrelated to the Eskimo-Aleut group (although there has been speculation linking Eskimo to Finnish, which is in turn closely related to Sami).

The business of counting words is a tricky one. Some estimates suggest English far outstrips any other language both in its total lexicon and in its words commonly used; alternative ways of counting give German an infinity of words (since they can be endless combined and re-combined). It is clear that English has a vast vocabulary, being as it is a compound of Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic language) and French; the morphological simplicity consequent on this merger has allowed English to absorb and transform words from any number of loan languages, chiefly Greek (for words of a scientific stamp, principally) but countless others – including, of course, Eskimo, from which we have kayak, igloo, anorak, husky, and, apparently, Mukluk (type of furry boots).


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