Month: December 2014

The Myth of Eskimos Having Many More Words for Snow

snowA popular but discredited story is that the Eskimo language contains many times, even multiple times, more words for snow than English. The story is that Eskimos have words for different kinds and states of snow that we don’t have: where we might say “falling snow” they supposedly have a single word.

At first blush the story seems plausible, even common sense, as the Eskimos have more experience with snow than someone in Miami Beach or Liverpool. Further, first glance at the Eskimo languages does appear to support the urban myth. Where we would have phrases describing snow (“falling snow,” “Crunchy snow.” “Snow drift on the roof”), the Eskimos appear to have single words for our phrases.

Beyond that there are multiple Eskimo languages not one, the problem with the myth is the Eskimo languages are structured differently than English, so it appears to have more words when it really does not. The Eskimos languages are polysynthetic, meaning they have words comprised of numerous words and pieces of attached to each other. English has examples of this, including fisherman (fisher + man), sweetheart (sweet + heart) and masterpiece (master + piece). The Eskimos have more extreme combinations, with long phrases and even sentences scrunched into a word. Where we would have the phrase “Hard snow” they might have their language equivalent of “hardsnow.” Where we would say “Snow drift on the roof of my house” they would have “Snowdriftontheroofofmyhouse.” Due to the polysynethic nature, the Eskimos attach all sorts of words together, making new words as they go.

 English

 Polysyntheticenglish

 snow

 snow

 white snow

 whitesnow

 white snow in the wind

 whitesnowinthewind

 white snow on a stick

 whitesnowonastick

 white snow on my dog

 whitesnowonmydog

Looking at the above list, some would say English has one word for snow, while Polysyntheticenglish has five. However, the only real difference between the two is the right omits the spaces. The left and right are equivalent.

In reality, the Eskimos languages may have slightly more or slightly fewer words, but not the vast amount more than English. In fact, due to the different structuring of the languages, it is impossible to exactly compare the number of words. What counts and doesn’t count as a word is debatable, and the comparing the languages’ words can be like comparing apples to oranges.

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