100 Words for Snow

You’ve probably heard the saying “Eskimos have over a hundred words for snow.” The saying helps illuminate differences in culture and language, and has been used to teach marketers and advertisers how to reach their customers with the “right” word.  But where does this saying come from? And how true is it?

The saying originated from an anthropological study by Franz Boas in 1911.  He compared the many English words for water (river, stream, lake, wave, dew, rain) to the “Eskimo” words for snow, examining different words for snow on the ground versus snow falling.  Boas notes no specific number in his article, but his work was referenced again and again over the years, gaining significance and morphing into the phrase we hear today.

So how true is this saying? Well, that depends on how you look at it.

Consider the way Boas compared these words to English words for water, and the examples he gave: “aput, expressing snow on the ground; another one, qana, falling snow; a third one, piqsirpoq, drifting snow; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, a snowdrift.”

In English, we tend to use adjectives to describe the snow, but even still, there are plenty of words to describe different types of snow; flurries, dusting, slush, powder, snowflakes. Is it a snowstorm, blizzard, or a nor’easter? Did you make a snowman, a snow-angel, a snowball, or a snow-cone with the snow? If we add tenses to the list, we have three different words for every verb: snows, snowing, snowed. Take it a step even further and add ice words to the list and I think we could come up with at least 50 words.

So we’re halfway there in English, but let’s pause for a minute and take some time to examine the word “Eskimo.” The saying uses the word “Eskimo,” but what exactly does that mean?  Who are the Eskimos anyway?” The term Eskimo is actually a general term for the indigenous people of the northern circumpolar region, including Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and northern Russia. If you’ve been keeping up with our blogs, you probably know how unlikely it is that a native population that spans across oceans and four different countries would all speak the same language. In fact, “Eskimos” can be divided into more than ten different ethnic groups, speaking even more languages, including Aleut, Alutiiq, Naukan, Inuktitut, and more.

If we consider the saying from this point of view, it’s easy to surmise that the Eskimos have over 100 words for snow.  After all, they have almost a dozen languages between them. This is basically like finding 20 words for snow in English, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Portuguese and saying that “Western Europeans” have more than a hundred words for snow.  How many Asian words are there for rice? Or try to find 100 “Indian” words for sand.  It shouldn’t be hard, considering there are more than 20 scheduled official languages in India.

So is the saying true? Well, if you take it literally, yes the Eskimos have more than a hundred words of snow, but if you consider just one language, and don’t include derivatives (like snowman) or tenses (snowing/snowed), then you probably won’t come up with a hundred.

Now you know the truth about the Eskimos, their many words for snow, and their numerous languages.  If you need anything translated into one of those languages, or any other language, check out all the services we have to offer at Lionbridge onDemand.