Straight Dope Message Board

Straight Dope Message Board (
-   Comments on Cecil's Columns/Staff Reports (
-   -   Eskimo words for snow (

toddh 12-31-2000 08:01 AM

The question about how many words Eskimos have for snow is an old topic. Philosophers and linguists once argued about whether one language was "better" at describing snow, or dirt, or science, or philosophy.

Benjamin Whorf is (or was) the number one proponent of the view that "Language affects the way we think." In other words, in the simplest formulation, "The English language only has one word for snow, but Eskimos have nine (or 23 or 531) words for snow, so Eskimos have a richer language in that one category." It's usually called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism. In his writings, Whorf asserted (incorrectly, I might point out) that Hopi Indians, because of their language, would be good physicists, but Navajo Indians, because of their language, would not be good physicists.

The first flaw in that argument is that, if it's important, you'll make up words for it. I grew up in Minnesota and I know about snow. Yeah, "snow falling from the sky" is different from "snow on the ground," which could be "mushy snow" or "crunchy snow." Some snow is wet, which makes it good for snowballs, and some is dry. Do you count "wet snow" as two words? Or is "wetsnow" one word? I could make up ten or twenty or thirty words for different kinds of snow (snirt is snow mixed with dirt).

The second flaw is the idea that if you don't have a word for it, you can't talk about it. Which means, some concepts can't be translated. Which turns out to be racist. If you grew up in Finland, you think in Finnish and you can't possibly understand how to play basketball. Native-speakers of German are the only people who can understand philosophy. Egyptians have 20 words for pyramids. Russians have 30 words for religion. Nigerians have 100 words for the Niger river (The French language could have 100 words for the river if people in France cared about that river).

If a Nigerian grew up in France, he or she would learn the words for "Bearnaise sauce" and if a French person grew up in Nigeria, he or she would learn the words for the different kinds of trees.


WillGolfForFood 12-31-2000 08:41 AM


Originally posted by toddh
Eskimos have nine (or 23 or 531) words for snow
I believe they include:


Some people include the variants


but George Carlin doesn't.

Arnold Winkelried 12-31-2000 11:17 AM

please don't forget the link to the online column
Welcome to the SDMB, and thank you for posting your comment.
Please include a link to Cecil's column if it's on the straight dope web site.
To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in your post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil's column can be found on-line at this link:
What are the nine Eskimo words for snow?

The column (including Slug Signorino's illustration) can also be found on pages 297-298 of Cecil Adams’ book «The Straight Dope».

moderator, «Comments on Cecil's Columns»

Dr.Pinky 12-31-2000 12:09 PM

Thinking in Urdu is different from thinking in English, which has more to do with verb tenses than descriptive phrases.

I live in Juneau, Alaska & have a list (at work) of 29 words for rain that I could post Tuesday.

- - - - -
Translations are like mistresses; the beautiful ones are unfaithful.

Muffin 12-31-2000 12:27 PM

Here is what Peter Ernerk, Nunavut's Deputy Minister of the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, has to say about both "snow" and "Eskimo":

"For beginners, let's get one thing clear! Although myth has it that there are 100 ways of saying the word "snow" in Inuktitut, there is in fact only one word for it: aput. But just as the English language has different terms for different conditions of snow (for example, powdery snow, packing snow, slush, sleet), Inuktitut has different terms for different conditions of snow, too."
. . .
And Inuit have always called themselves Inuit — the people. The name "Eskimo," a Cree Indian word that means "eaters of raw meat," is a derogatory term that is no longer used in Nunavut."

For a better understanding of why to non-Inuit there seem to be so many words for snow, listen to what Inuit elder and translator Ann Meekitjuk Hanson has to say.

One thing my Uncle Gordie, previously of Iqaluit, can attest to, is that there is no specific word for "snow blocking the runway", or for "plow the snow off the runway", or for "we're out of $#%& fuel, so get that $%&#@ @#$%# off the runway, you @#$%# ##%$ #$#@."

ruadh 01-01-2001 07:57 AM

Along the same lines
In her book Green English Leeds University linguist Loreto Todd, who seems to be a Sapir-Whorf proponent (or at the very least a sympathiser), lists over a dozen different "Hiberno-English" words for potato.

Earl Snake-Hips Tucker 01-01-2001 10:15 PM


The name "Eskimo," a Cree Indian word that means "eaters of raw meat," is a derogatory term that is no longer used in Nunavut."

tisiphone 01-03-2001 04:44 PM

While the original meaning has been refuted, it is still *not done* in the Canadian North to talk about Eskimos. They are Inuit, and will correct you quite strongly.


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 05:53 PM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to:

Send comments about this website to:

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to:

Copyright © 2018 STM Reader, LLC.