How Many Eskimo Words for Snow

The notion that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow is widespread, completely false, and still taught in schools. How did this unfounded myth gain so much momentum?

Most people have been told at least once that “Eskimos” have many words for snow. This pearl of wisdom is usually shot off in an academic setting as an example of how different cultures adapt their language to the specifics of their environment. You know that this fact is not only false but makes no sense given a basic understanding Eskimo languages.

The mess got started in 1911 when renowned anthropologist Franz Boas pointed out that Eskimos have four distinct root words for snow translating as “snow on the ground”, “falling snow”, “drifting snow”, and “snowdrift”. It is unclear where Boas collected this linguistic data. Eskimos speak a polysynthetic language meaning that they take a root word such as snow, and then add on to it a potentially endless number of descriptors. For example, Eskimos could take their root word for snowdrift and tack onto it their words for cold, high, insurmountable, and frightening, thus creating one very long and descriptive word. Because the language works in this way, there are, technically, an infinite number of Eskimo words for snow.

Do you know the Eskimo word for house? That would be igloo, and another misconception is that Eskimos of yore lived in rounded structures made from neatly stacked ice blocks. In fact, basic igloos could be constructed quickly and were typically used only as emergency shelters. Eskimos lived in sod houses in the winter months and tents in the summer.

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