CLOSE
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

How Many Words Do Eskimos Really Have for Snow?

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

There are three answers to this question: a heck of a lot, not that many, and a whole heck of a lot. Or, if you want specifics: 5, 2, and 99. Confused? The question has been problematic, and the best way to understand what the answers mean is to take a look at the history of people talking about Eskimo words for snow.

Preliminaries

There is no single "Eskimo" language. "Eskimo" is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik peoples living in the polar regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. They speak a variety of languages, the larger ones being Central Alaskan Yup'ik, West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Inuktitut. There are multiple dialects of each. Some have more words for snow than others.

 A heck of a lot

Today, you see the "Eskimos have so many words for snow" trope everywhere from ads to cartoons to articles about hairstyles. As Laura Martin noted in her 1986 article "Eskimo Words for Snow," anthropologists and psychologists started using the story in the late 1950's as a go-to illustration in discussions of the relationship between language, culture, and perception. If Eskimos carved up the world of snow into four or five categories where we had one, was their perception of snow different from ours? From there the idea spread into the popular culture, and it has been going strong ever since. Where the original sources mentioned four or five specific snow words, in the hands of the general public that number turned into 25, 50, 100, 400 – it didn't really matter. The story did not exist to give information about Eskimo languages, but to say, "hey, other people sure do look at the world differently!"

And this was problematic. The idea of using language to show that other people look at the world differently had a nasty history. Early ethnographers used linguistic evidence to impugn the character or cognitive abilities other peoples. An 1827 book mentions that in the language of Lapland "there are five words for snow, seven or eight for a mountain, but honesty, virtue and conscience must be expressed by a periphrasis." The academics who picked up the snow words tale in the 1950s didn't take such a simplistic view of the relationship between language and culture. But to say that having a lot words for something means you find it important or perceive it more readily, gives some people the wrong idea that that not having a lot of words for something means you can't perceive it and don't find it important.

Not that many

Part of the debunking of that false implication came in the form of a debunking of the snow words trope. Martin's paper and Geoffrey Pullum's well-known essay "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," pointed out that the linguistic facts did not support the idea that Eskimos had some wildly exotic giant snow vocabulary.

The Inuit and Yupik languages are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages combine a limited set of roots and word endings to create an unlimited set of words. For instance from oqaq – the West Greenlandic root for "tongue" – you get oqaaseq (word), oqaasipiluuppaa (harangues him), oqaluppoq (speaks), oqaatiginerluppaa (speaks badly about him) and Oqaasileriffik (Greenlandic language secretariat). These can then be expanded with all sorts of other endings, so that a sentence like, "I hadn't planned to cause you to harangue him after all" would be expressed with one word. If these word-sentences count as words, then Eskimos don't just have thousands of words for snow, but for everything.

Martin suggests that we instead ask how many roots Eskimos have for snow. In the case of West Greenlandic, the answer is two: qanik (snow in the air), and aput (snow on the ground). From these we can get derived words like qanipalaat (feathery clumps of falling snow) and apusiniq (snowdrift). There are also terms for snow that use different roots (for "covering," "floating" or other things snow does), but Pullum's essay notes a problem with the notion of counting words with other roots as "snow words": Do we count an Inuit word that can mean "snow for igloo making" as a snow word if it also just means building materials in general? To use another example, is "pack" a snow word in English, or a just a general term for tightly smushing things? In any case, there may be just as many snow words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, avalanche, etc.) as in "Eskimo" languages.

A whole heck of a lot

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."

Clearly, there is a lot more included in this definition than would be included in a typical dictionary definition. But it shows how a set of terminology can reflect a complicated body of specific expertise. Every area of expertise has such a set. Geologists have lots of words for rocks, linguists have lots of words for speech sounds. This means Eskimos may not be any more exotic than geologists or linguists, but it does not mean their words for snow are uninteresting. You can learn a lot about what distinctions are important to make in a field by looking at the distinctions between words. The Yupik ice words, whatever the number, are important because they package information in a useful way. We ignore the significance of that packaging, as Harrison says, "at our peril."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
AFP, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

arrow
Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios