Eskimos have lots of words for snow: True/False?

Ten, twenty, dozens, hundreds: the exact figure differs from mention to mention, but it is mentioned a lot. It even used to be mentioned in the classrooms and textbooks of a variety of anthropological disciplines. Not any more, though, because it turns out to be false.

For a start there is no single language spoken by Eskimos. The widely scattered inhabitants of the northern extremities of the earth go by many names and speak many tongues. Though these languages are related, this isn’t as promising as it may sound — it’s a lot like arguing that Europeans have lots of words for beer.

That’s not all, though. Even if you go after just one of these languages, what counts as a word? The languages we are considering take a very relaxed attitude to words, allowing very complex notions to be expressed by tacking lots of meaningful units together. This isn’t entirely unfamiliar to English speakers; it allows such monstrosities as “antidisestablishmentarianism” to sneak into the language. English provides snowy examples, too: snowstorm, snowplough, snowman and so on.

Eskimos have hundreds, thousands of such snow-laden combinations at their fingertips but, just as a snowplough isn’t snow, most of them are not words for snow itself. If you take the other obvious approach and instead count the units that really do mean snow you end up with a handful at best.

Experts have, despite the definitional problems, considered the Eskimo snow question carefully. They have concluded that no matter how you cut it Eskimos do not have lots of words for snow — especially when compared to English which is itself no slouch: think of blizzard, sleet, drift and slush.

It probably started as a way for academics to pithily illustrate the way different groups talk about the world differently as needs demand. It has survived thanks to unthinking repetition by teachers, writers and trivia buffs. Unfortunately, nobody thought to check with any Eskimos. The cold hard truth is that however you define “Eskimo” and however you define “words”, Eskimos do not have lots of words for snow.

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