You’ve probably heard the popular saying, “The Eskimo have 100 words for snow.” It’s a phrase used to justify linguistic relativity: the idea that our world view is shaped by the language we speak. Unfortunately, it isn’t true.
First of all, not everyone agrees with the label “Eskimo.” Many indigenous people in northern Canada prefer “Inuit,” which is their word for people. In Greenland, they use “Kalaallit,” meaning Greenlanders. Most Alaskans, meanwhile, accept “Eskimo,” because Inuit fails to include the Yupik language and cultures also spoken there. Essentially, “Eskimo” doesn’t refer to a single group or language. It’s an umbrella term for people who speak Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut languages in Arctic North America. It would be difficult, then, for this claim to ring true across so many different languages and cultures.
Even if we narrow down to a single language, though, it still doesn’t make sense. The thing is, our idea of a word in English doesn’t fit with the way these languages operate. Take Kalaallisut, spoken by the Kalaallit in Greenland.
Kalaallisut is a polysynthetic language, which means that it combines many pieces of meaning into a single word. In English, we might express new or specific ideas with a noun phrase, like “old shoes” or “the house two doors down.” In Kalaallisut, though, you do this by adding suffixes to the basic noun. Just like “shoes” can be turned into “old shoes” in English, siku (“sea ice”) can become sikuliaq (“new ice”), sikuaq (“thin ice”), or sikurluk (“melting ice”) in Kalaallisut.
So, maybe “the Eskimo” do have 100 words for snow. They just also have 100 “words” for book. Or car. Or tree. And so would English speakers, if our language added words together likethis!
The next time you hear this myth, help us set the story straight. We’re interested in languages like Inupiaq, Inuktun, Yupik, and Kalaallisut for plenty of reasons—but having 100 words for snow isn’t one of them!
Check out these links to learn more:
The Inuit Don’t Have 100 Words For Snow, So Why Does The Myth Persist? (Tom Chivers, Buzzfeed UK)
Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back (Geoffrey K. Pullum, Language Log)
Inuit or Eskimo: Which name to use? (Lawrence Kaplan, Alaska Native Language Center)
Are there really hundreds of Inuit words for snow? Debunking a word myth (Dave Wilton, Oxford Dictionaries)