Eskimo's '50 words for snow' challenged

From the UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA – BERKELEY, and ‘your tax dollars at work’ department:

Fresh look at trope about Eskimo words for snow

Researchers take on urban legend about Arctic vocabulary

That old trope about there being at least 50 Eskimo words for snow has a new twist.

Researchers at UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University have taken a fresh look at words for snow, taking on an urban legend referred to by some as “the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax.”

But instead of counting the words for snow used by Inuit, Yupik and other natives of the Arctic regions, as others have done, they looked at how people in warmer climates speak of snow and ice compared to their cold-weather counterparts.

“We found that languages from warm parts of the world are more likely to use the same word for snow and ice,” said Alexandra Carstensen, a doctoral student in psychology and co-author of the study published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The finding that people in warmer regions are less likely to distinguish between ice and snow indirectly supports a claim by anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911 that the words used to describe different types of snow in Arctic languages reflect the “chief interests of a people.”

By the same principle, people in warmer climates, where snow is less of a concern, are less likely to care as much about the difference between snow and ice, and so use one word to describe both, just as Hawaiians use the word hau for snow and ice.

To test that theory, researchers used multiple dictionaries and linguistic and meteorological data — as well as Google Translate and Twitter — to conduct an extensive search for words for snow and ice in nearly 300 diverse languages. They then linked those words to local climates and geography worldwide.

“We wanted to broaden the investigation past Eskimo languages in particular,” said study senior author Charles Kemp, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “The idea that languages reflect the needs of their speakers is general, and can be explored using data from all over the world.”

The study builds on the team’s previous research showing how language is shaped by our need to communicate precisely and efficiently.

“We think that terms for snow and ice reveal the same basic principle at work, modulated by local communicative need,” said study lead author Terry Regier, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.


109 thoughts on “Eskimo's '50 words for snow' challenged

      • Scotty, “Rob McKenna had a little book, in which were entered two hundred and thirty-one different types of rain.”
        But he is a ‘Rain God’ that the clouds want “to be near him, to love him, to cherish him and to water him”.
        So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

      • richardbriscoe April 15, 2016 at 12:38 pm
        And the Australians, surely, have over 70 words for vomiting ?

        ‘Vomiting’? That makes 71

      • My wife and I lived in Scotland for two years. As the only Yanks among our group of acquaintanses we were to be the guests of honor at a fourth of July barbecue. The barbecue was to be canceled in case of rain. The morning of the fourth dawned gray and gloomy, progressed into a drizzle, and then to what I as a native of South Dakota, and my wife a native of California considered a substantial rain. It certainly wasn’t “cats & dogs”, not “pitch forks & hammer handles” as my Dad used to say; but a substantial rain nonetheless. We naturally assumed the barbecue was canceled, only to find out the next day that we were the only ones who didn’t attend. It seems that there was no rain, only a “Scottish mist”.

    • But they won’t need a word for snow in the future, as there won’t be any snow, thanks to AGW.

    • A recent lexicon of sea ice terminology in Nunavik (Appendix A of the collective work Siku: Knowing our Ice, 2008) comprises no fewer than 93 different words. These include general appellations such as siku, but also terms as specialized as qautsaulittuq, ice that breaks after its strength has been tested with a harpoon; kiviniq, a depression in shore ice caused by the weight of the water that passed over and accumulated on its surface during the tide; or iniruvik, ice that cracked because of tide changes and that the cold weather refroze.

      • “These include general appellations such as siku, but also terms as specialized as qautsaulittuq, ice that breaks after its strength has been tested with a harpoon”
        Actually Ron, that word is uttered when the harpoon separates a couple metatarsals.

      • teapartygeezer, hopefully the perceptive folks on this group (which I would like to think included everyone) are capable of picking up on the sarcastic tone of a post without needing to be led by the nose by means of anything as obvious as a ‘tag’. The English language evolved for many centuries without the need for such things, and as far as I am concerned they have no place.

    • ‘None of the below cost any tax dollars to complete’
      Damn, that’s too bad. Because when tax dollars are used, we get ten dollars back for every one spent.

    • As pointed out in the Mental Floss article, it would be critically important to have descriptions of snow and especially ice that described potentially life threatening conditions when living day to day in such a hostile environment. Something we moderns rarely have to think about except maybe when on thin ice at say a lake, where a single word might be more efficient than “don’t go, ice is too thin, you might fall through and drown”.
      “The linguist K. David Harrison has traveled all over the world studying endangered languages. In his book The Last Speakers, he says it’s a mistake to think that just because people made uninformed and exaggerated claims about Eskimo snow words in the past, the real number must be ordinary and uninteresting.
      From what he has seen, “the number of snow/ice/wind/weather terms in some Arctic languages is impressively vast, rich, and complex.” The Yupik, for example, “identify and name at least 99 distinct sea ice formations.” For example, there is a word Nuyileq, meaning “crushed ice beginning to spread out; dangerous to walk on. The ice is dissolving, but still has not dispersed in water, although it is vulnerable for one to fall through and to sink. Sometimes seals can even surface on this ice because the water is starting to appear.”

      • So what’s it mean, then, about what’s important to me that I’ve got:
        Cubes, crushed, slushy, “water back” and “rocks” all in relation to only Scotch? For Tequila we add “frosted” and “rim ice” (and even rim salt / ice if you can manage it…) then there’s Gin “shaken not stirred” and shaken over and on it goes…
        Now I’m startin’ to wonder just how many words for ice English has? Even “neat” meaning “no ice please and mind that it’s not got any water either…” and more.
        Frankly, I’m thinking we could give them E’moes a run for it… Especially if the skiers are included! Powder, kernel, acorn, packed powder, and glaze ice. Slush and mush. And so many more…
        Add jewelry and “ice” has a whole ‘nother meaning… clear diamond.
        Then for foods we have “creme glace” and sorbet; baked Alaska and even ice cream.
        I suspect there’s even a whole lot more… (cubes, crushed, shaved… )

    • My aunt lives in Scotland and the told me that it only rained twice last week… once for three days and once for four.

      • Or as they say in British Columbia, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights in the bible, which in BC is a sunny summer.

  1. The Thai word for snow is “hi- maa” and is a Sanskrit word. The same root as “The Himalayas”.
    You have to be careful how you say the word because depending on the tone you might be misunderstood and the listener might think you were talking about the nether regions of a female horse – or even a female dog.

    • There is no central Thai word for frost as far as I can figure out because the only frost you see in central Thailand is around a chilled bottle of beer. They use a northern dialect word “Meka ning”, that is, a word from an area that has naturally occurring frost. Re tones: yes, don’t overemphasize he, she and yet–it can be embarrassing. Mind you the F word means pumpkin.

      • And ice is literally rendered as “hard water” (nahm kaang) just as calculator is “the machine that thinks of numbers” (kreung kit laak).

    • Once there where a couple, an Englishman and a Finn in Thailand. The englishman tell that Himalaya is high ground and the Finn that it is “korkeaa maata”. So now there is hi-maa in Thai. Just joking (-;

    The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax
    The tale she tells is an embarrassing saga of scholarly sloppiness and popular eagerness to embrace exotic facts about other people’s languages without seeing the evidence. The fact is that the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax perpetrated by the anthropological linguistics community on itself.
    The original source is Franz Boas’ introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians (1911).

  3. Mongolians, who are historically more numerous and literate than the Inuit, have been dealing with snow and ice for a long time – about 80,000 years at least according to an anthropologist at the National University of Mongolia. It might surprise some to know that 80,000 years ago people were living in Mongolia during an ice age but it was a lot warmer than Chicago at the time. They have lots of words for snow and ice and variations between, including different weather conditions featuring ice and snow.
    One term they do not have is ‘rotten ice’, something unique to the vocabulary of the ‘climate scientist’. Like the Nguni peoples in SE Africa (including the Zulus, Swazis etc) Mongolians have a large number of words for dealing with animals, describing them accurately and separating by those descriptions one goat out of a herd of 400 that does not belong to them. (<< Interpret that sentence with caution!)
    The English preoccupation for getting sloshed, pissed, 'four sheets to the wind', has more terms for being intoxicated than the Inuit have for snow! What does this tell us? Can it explain in part the strange other-worldly phenomenon called catastrophic anthropogenic global warming cause by beer-fizz?

    • One term they do not have is ‘rotten ice’, something unique to the vocabulary of the ‘climate scientist’.

    • So what do the Mongolians say you have to do, when the marmots start acting crazy. ??
      Did the Mongolians come from the Uzbeki gene that is in all Native Americans. ??

    The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax

    Among the many depressing things about this credulous transmission and elaboration of a false claim is that even if there were a large number of roots for different snow types in some Arctic language, this would not, objectively, be intellectually interesting; it would be a most mundane and unremarkable fact. Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades of mauve; printers have many different names for different fonts (Caslon, Garamond, Helvetica, Times Roman, and so on), naturally enough. If these obvious truths of specialization are supposed to be interesting facts about language, thought, and culture, then I’m sorry, but include me out.

    C.W. Schultz-Lorentzen’s Dictionary of the West Greenlandic Eskimo Language (1927) gives just two possibly relevant roots: qanik, meaning ‘snow in the air’ or ‘snowflake’, and aput, meaning ‘snow on the ground’.

  5. Eskimo words for snow:
    snow, slush, sleet, hail, powder, hard pack, blizzard, flurries, flake, dusting, crust, avalanche, drift, frost, glacier and iceberg, to name but a few.

    • we have plenty of adjectives to tack in front of a noun 🙂
      Being Australian, I’ve use adjectives when I encountered snow (though most people would consider them expletives)

      • Exactly.
        So if you write them one after the other without space in the middle, like in thinice, does it count as a new word? Or is it just plain cheating?

  6. hell we have at least 8 words for snow here in Maine.
    snow,monday,tuesday,wednesday,thursday,friday,saturday and sunday.
    7 of those words disappear for a few months during the year though.

  7. From wikipedia ,a source that is often useful….
    “Languages in the Inuit and Yupik language groups add suffixes to words to express the same concepts expressed in English and many other languages by means of compound words, phrases, and even entire sentences. One can create a practically unlimited number of new words in the Eskimoan languages on any topic, not just snow, ……”
    Then there are the Canadian words for snow………….55 it seems
    And where I live we have one word for snow, that’s “snow” and use it locally maybe once in a lifetime

  8. But the Eskimos – and all of us – will soon forget even what “snow” is, according to the climate scam gurus…remember, the warming happens first at the poles!

  9. Back in the day when I was an avid downhill skier:
    We had a huge number of terms to describe snow and ski conditions. Our vocabulary was intended to accurately convey information and therefor would be considered “techspeak”. We thought it not the least bit unusual that another group living in the cold would also have a rich vocabulary in a topic so near to them.
    55 words for snow – well, yes.
    On the other Hand:
    On my last trip to Barbados, I suggested filling an Ice cooler with snow and paying the air freight. We could then, on arrival, start a snowball fight in the hotel courtyard, right at the poolside swim-up bar. The hotel staff would not have the vocabulary to describe to management what was happening. By the time Security would show up, the evidence would have melted. Perfect.
    She thought about it, and said No.
    Then she said NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO!

      • George, those poor Eskimos are missing a few. The number 535 is just a start then there are agencies, services, deputy to the secretary, deputy to the deputy secretary and on and on. Long time ago working at Los Alamos and not being able to keep up with all the deputies to deputies, etc. we just called them deputy do dads.

  10. So in contrast the Eskimos and Inuits probably only have one word for warm/hot/sunny/extreme heat/over 2 degrees/hotter hottest etc etc and this is warm.

  11. I suppose it depends entirely on how one defines “word”. Some languages tend to run modifying words together, and some don’t, so this gets very silly very fast.

    • Actually, in linguistics, a “big deal” is made about deciding “what is a word?”. We don’t think about it much, being raised with printed words and divisions in visual presentation; but in fact, even for English, what is called “Connected Speech” does not have such spaces between the sounds. Nor does old written forms of Egyptian or Greek… So, in fact, “what is a word”? varies a lot, even for things like English where you might think it clear… I’mgonnawuphisass! is how it sounds… so is that one word or 8 or??? Some comedians make a living out of this…

  12. They have one word for snow, but 50 different cuss words associated with it. Thereby exceeding the Minnesota vocabulary by three or four, excluding Norwegian loan words.

  13. Here in Colorado we are waiting for a big dump of “Sierra Concrete”. Only concrete workers and someone who has to shovel spring snow can relate. And, you don’t have to be Inuit or Finnish to comprehend.

  14. What perhaps is more surprising is that people in warmer climes who do not encounter the phenomenon have a word for snow at all.

    • I remember my brother (at the time a high school drop out) pointing out the fact that my “Classics Illustrated” copy of “The Last of the Mohicans” I was reading back in the 70s was ridiculous, as it had two Native Americans admiring a couple of carved ivory elephants and recognizing they were elephants…
      That’s when I started to learn the difference between “education” and “learning”.

  15. In Britain we have another word for snow … WRONG sort! For when the trains can’t run.

  16. “We think that terms for snow and ice reveal the same basic principle at work, modulated by local communicative need,” said study lead author Terry Regier, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.

    Well, …duh!

    • And for that reason, the ice related vocabulary is rich in northern languages.
      I once counted words I know and got something like 40, of which I can translate in English maybe half. For example, blizzard might be a good English word, but to my knowledge it does catch the quality of snow that well. Dry snow in very cold weather and wetter snow in mid cold temperature behave differently. And once it is on ground you need new words.

      • Blizzard is snow with high wind. Ground blizzard is a blizzard without falling snow and can be worse.

      • Pretty much. There are a couple regional differences in the definition for blizzard. Both require high wind for a minimum amount of time and snow in the air. New or old snow is fine, it just has to be in the air. The east coast definition no longer requires temperature below 20°F.

  17. In the absence of written language wouldn’t you be confined to studying the last 100 years or so? Wouldn’t there have been significant evolution of word use over the course of that time?

    • The recent changes are usually easy to recognize. The comparative linguistics can go back in time much much more than the era of written language. See for example
      It is, however, true that very specific words like ‘wetted and hard-frozen snow on a lake’ may develop faster, say in hundreds of years compared fundamental roots which tend to stay for millennia.

    • Varies with the nature of the language. Highly inflected languages (like Latin and Greek and Sanskrit) tend to be “conservative” and change slowly as the same sound (case ending) can apply to dozens or hundreds of words so getting it a little wrong can have a big impact.
      Agglutinative languages are much more fee to change as a single word can just shift and as long as everyone except it, that’s fine.
      In between are languages with weak inflection (case and gender endings) but not fully agglutinative – things like Spanish and English. Changing modestly fast (though faster for English than Spanish as it is still more inflected than English, though less than Latin…)
      So Greek is still recognizable as Greek even with 3000 years of very slow change. English of 500 years ago is not really understood by a modern speaker without some training and experience…

  18. Living in the far north, aka Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, one gets used to discussing a number of topics using a simple descriptive.
    e.g., in both Pennsy and Mass, skiing was always used to describe the various methods of plummeting downhill while wearing slats on one’s feet.
    While any effort to describe wearing similar foot slats whilst towed by a watercraft absolutely requires the descriptive adjective ‘water’, e.g. ‘water skiing’.
    Moving to warmer climes, e.g. Louisiana or Arizona, discussion using the simple descriptive ‘skiing’ always describes getting towed by watercraft. Any and all attempts to describe the winter activity of wearing slats on one’s feet while enjoying an exhilarating terrifying controlled fall on snow/ice absolutely requires the descriptive adjective ‘snow’, e.g. ‘snow skiing’.
    Perhaps, I should request a grant to try and find the exact dividing line around the world where North meets South or South meets North?
    Then again, there is the rather absurd differences in colloquial language surrounding ‘climate speak’ where vague correlations and loose assumptions means ‘science’ to the inflammatory carbon dioxide groups and ‘utter trash’ the scientifically literate.

  19. If we paid for this crap there are probably a limitless number of words for dumbass and sucker.

  20. Hmmm. Why do you think your tax dollars funded this research? Unless you can provide a link to the paper, it would be difficult to tell. Usually linguistic studies don’t require much of a budget (in the low 10s of thousands of dollars), and there are plenty of private granting orgs who can underwrite this sort of research. Yes, the NSF sometimes funds linguistic research, but I’m sure their social sciences research budget is somewhat less than say the $1.5 Trillion we’ve wasted on developing the F-35–a jet that maybe might just possibly be able to fly this year without crashing. The headline reminds of the Yiddish language which has more words than any language for describing various kinds of unpleasant people–although they haven’t developed a word yet for chronic ax whiners. 😉

  21. sorry for the typo. I meant “chronic tax whiners.” But they do have phrase for someone who whines about their government–shtayer krekhtser. Interesting.

  22. When I was studying Chinese at the Defense Language Institute our Mandarin program was a special trial program from Georgetown University Language Resource Center. It was based on the principles of the (in)famous psycholinguistic professor Leonard J. McCaskey. It wasn’t a very good way to learn Chinese but it was interesting the way most every lesson was designed to showcase that a peoples’ language is formed by its environment.

  23. “We wanted to broaden the investigation past Eskimo languages in particular,”
    WHY? [just because you are a psychology professor doesn’t count!]

  24. An interesting situation exists for AGW. There must be at least 50 meanings for the words “climate change” and “global warming” in the language of the Warmistas. These rich, universal homonym phrases embrace everything form temperatures going up, down or doing nothing, and on every scale from statistically insignificant to “dangerous so you must pay money now … urgently”. The only thing lacking is a definition not so vague as to be used in some sort of scientific context.

  25. The language of the Eskimo has a complex morphology that makes long words. The thing is that some of the morphemes are akin to adjectives and adverbs. So what we say things like: blowing snow, snow on the ground, snow that crunches when you walk on it, snow that’s good for sledding, powder, dirty snow, deep snow, etc; We could also say we also have at least fifty ways of saying snow.

    • Just think, there are a countably infinite number of words for integers, and an uncountably infinite number of ‘words’ for real numbers.

  26. Skiers have lots of words for snow. Ski resorts only have one: “powder”. Well maybe two, some also use “packed” when they mean “ice”.
    How many words are there for “BS”?

  27. I grew up in Switzerland and spent a lot of time in the Alps. In my own german dialect I can easily list 20 words for snow and ice. I would not have to travel 100km to find another two or three dozen of them. So

  28. Long long ago, in a place far far away, I skimmed an article that debunked “50 words for snow”. The false assumption was that each of the 50 words described a different type of snow providing distinct information about it. Not the case at all.
    Using an English example since I don’t do Eskimo — what is the difference between “powder snow” and “dry snow”? You can find dictionary definitions of each where the other phrase is used to define it. Now you can make the claim that “powder snow places an emphasis on the physicality of the snow while “dry snow” places an emphasis on the free water content of the snow — but HELL, they both describe exactly the same type of snow!
    The Eskimo language, like English, is filled with such redundancies which the naive (or paper hungry) researchers claimed had separate meanings. I think the conclusion of the debunking article was that the Eskimo language had about as many “real defining words” to describe snow as did English — meaning not that many.
    Eugene WR Gallun. .

  29. The obvious conclusion from all this is that global warming threatens to make many Eskimo words obsolete. The situation is even worse than we thought!

  30. …the words used to describe different types of snow in Arctic languages reflect the “chief interests of a people.”

    And in other news, artists who use oil paints or water colors for a living have a much greater vocabulary and knowledge of various shades of color than coal miners.

  31. ferdberple ( April 15, 2016 at 6:32 am ),
    Re your listing of Eskimo words for snow in English (snow, slush, sleet, hail, powder, hard pack, blizzard, flurries, flake, dusting, crust, avalanche, drift, frost, glacier and iceberg, to name but a few.):
    If these Eskimo words exist in English as well, that would logically mean that English has just as many words for snow as the Eskimos! Maybe more? Hehe.

  32. thankfully western minds have developed adjectives to further describe the various types of snow.
    I have yet to see the ancient eskimo written language describing snow.
    there is also the dreaded yellow snow and then the brown snow (they didn’t have 50 words for toilet paper or in fact toilet paper. maybe they used snow-paper

  33. For all the ski bums out there, we have around 50 words for snow as well. Some more descriptive than others. From Champagne powder to Sierra Cement. There are a lot.

  34. I have read linguistics debunking this BS decades ago…yes that’s right, that’s how old I am…

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