There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow’

By David Robson, New Scientist, Washington Post

Anthropologist Franz Boas didn’t mean to spark a century-long argument. Traveling through the icy wastes of Baffin Island in northern Canada during the 1880s, Boas simply wanted to study the life of the local Inuit people, joining their sleigh rides, trading caribou skins and learning their folklore. As he wrote proudly to his fiancee, “I am now truly like an Eskimo. . . . I scarcely eat any European foodstuffs any longer but am living entirely on seal meat.” He was particularly intrigued by their language, noting the elaborate terms used to describe the frozen landscape: “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled,” to name just two.

Mentioning his observations in the introduction to his 1911 book “Handbook of American Indian Languages,” he ignited the claim that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow. Although the idea continues to capture public imagination, most linguists considered it an urban legend, born of sloppy scholarship and journalistic exaggeration. Some have even gone as far as to name it the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest evidence, however, suggests that Boas was right all along.

This debate has rumbled on partly because of a grammatical peculiarity of the Eskimo family of languages. Boas studied Inuit, one of the two main branches; the other is Yupik. Each has spawned many dialects, but uniting the family is a feature known as polysynthesis, which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information in one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word.

For example, a single term might encompass a whole sentence in English: In Siberian Yupik, the base “angyagh” (boat) becomes “angyaghllangyugtuqlu” to mean “what’s more, he wants a bigger boat.” This makes compiling dictionaries particularly difficult: Do two terms that use the same base but a different ending really represent two common idioms within a language, or is the difference simply a speaker’s descriptive flourish? Both are possible, and vocabulary lists could quickly snowball if an outsider were to confuse the two — a criticism often leveled at Boas and his disciples.

Yet Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington, believes that Boas was careful to include only words representing meaningful distinctions. Taking the same care with their own work, Krupnik and others charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and concluded that they indeed have many more words for snow than English does.

Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer. In the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, Krupnik documented about 70 terms for ice that mark such distinctions as: “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese.