Do Eskimos have a hundred words for snow?

Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language?  Not as much as you might think.
Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language? Not as much as you might think.Courtesy drp

After this week's storms, the people of Minnesota have developed many new words for snow -- most of which are unprintable on a family blog. But do the Eskimos, who live along the Arctic Ocean and deal with far more snow than we ever do, have an unusually large vocabulary to describe the fluffy white stuff?

Not really. Though the legend does have some basis in fact.

In the 1930s, anthropologists Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir argued that
language, thought and experience influenced one another. They believed that not only did a people’s environment shape their language (the “100 words for snow” idea), but that language also shaped environment – or, at least, the ways you could think about your environment. According to Whorf, the grammar and vocabulary of a people strongly influence how they see the world -- if you have no word for something, you can't really think about it.

Whorf did experiments which gave some support to the second part of the theory. But no one has been able to compile much evidence for the first part. Thus, most linguists today find the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis incomplete, and instead advance theories that the capacity for language is “hard-wired” into every human brain.

So, what about Eskimo words for “snow”? Well, that’s hard to answer, because Inuit languages (Inuit being the largest culture commonly referred to as "Eskimo") make extensive use of morphemes--“sub-words” that can be added to a root word to alter its meaning. Kind of like prefixes and suffixes in English.

Anyway, linguists have found about 15 Inuit root words relating to snow and snow phenomena, which is not that much different from the number of such words in English. But the use of morphemes in Inuit greatly increases the number of snow-related terms.

A good summary of the issue can be found here.

Want to hear what Inuktitut, a Canadian Inuit language, sounds like? Go here.

To learn more about life in the Arctic, check out our Object of the Month for December, a pair of Inuit snow goggles.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Calling an Inuit an Eskimo is like calling an Irishman a drunken leprechaun.

posted on Wed, 12/05/2007 - 6:53pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Not at all, In fact, in Alaska, it's the opposite -- calling some Eskimos "Inuit" is incorrect.

"Inuit" refers to the cultures, descended from the Thule, that live near the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. "Eskimo" refers to the Inuit plus another tribe, the Yupik, who live a little south of there, in western Alaska and eastern Siberia. In Canada and Greenland, where the only Eskimo people are the Inuit, they prefer to be called by that name. In Alaska, however, the Yupik don't like being called "Inuit." They are not same tribe; in fact, the word "inuit" (meaning "the people") doesn't even exist in the Yupik language. Thus, in Alaska, it is common to refer to "Eskimos," "Inuit Eskimos," and "Yupik Eskimos."

The word "Eskimo" is not an insult, though many people labor under that misapprehension. At one time it was thought that the word derived from an Algonquin term meaning "people who eat raw fish." (An accurate description, both of the Eskimos and of some Algonquin.) However, later studies have determined that "Eskimo" actually comes from the Montagnais dialect of Cree, where it means "people who net snowshoes." (An alternate theory holds that it comes from the Montagnais for "people who speak a different language.")

In any event, calling an Inuit an Eskimo is more like calling a Bavarian a German (instead of "Deutch"), and in Alaska at least, about as offensive.

posted on Thu, 12/06/2007 - 1:20am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I agree with gene. Inuit means "people who net" and eskimo actually means "people who speak a different language" It is not an insult, mearly a broader form of identification, like calling a French man European, it is simply less specific.

posted on Thu, 12/20/2007 - 11:23am
Drunken Leprechaun's picture
Drunken Leprechaun says:

It's good to see all these Eskimos participating in the discussion!
I'm assuming they're Eskimos, because who else would say with such authority what they call themselves and how they feel about it.

posted on Thu, 12/20/2007 - 12:22pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

That is so true! Because education, research and original sources mean absolutely nothing -- the only thing anyone has any right to expound upon are those issues which they have experienced personally. Which would explain why no one on this blog has ever expressed an opinion about anything.

(Wait a minute...aren't leprechauns Irish? Wouldn't that mean that Drunken Leprichaun has no authority to expound upon Eskimos, either?)

posted on Fri, 12/21/2007 - 5:29pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Thank you!! That's what I keep trying to tell my negro and oriental friends!!

The previous poster (leprechaun) is clearly forgetting the proudest tradition of anthropology: telling "others" what they are. Education and research are the best substitutes for human agency. It might feel a little weird at first, having someone tell you what to call yourself, DL, but if you just lie back, think of England, and let education and research have their way with you, it'll all be over before you know it!

posted on Fri, 12/21/2007 - 8:09pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Ah, what a fool I have been! As an employee of a museum, I had long thought that education and research might actually have some value. You know: “knowledge is power,” “the truth shall set you free,” that sort of thing. But your withering sarcasm has lifted the scales from my eyes.

In researching the snow goggles label, I contacted several educated people to help me define the term “Inuit.” I never used the word “Eskimo” in my queries, yet nevertheless it showed up in their responses.

Dr. Jonathan Haas, curator of North American anthropology for The Field Museum, wrote:

In Alaska, most Eskimo people still call themselves "Eskimo" rather than Inuit, Yupik, Inupiat, Ukpik or any of the other local names. In Canada, they tend to call themselves Inuit.

Dr. Aron Crowell, Director of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage, wrote:

Unlike in Canada, very few Alaskans refer to themselves as Inuit, nor is this term used by anthropologists. The preferred Native-use terms are either the actual group name, such as Inupiaq, Yup'ik, etc. or the general name Eskimo. Or frequently these are used in combination, e.g. Inupiaq Eskimo. The most general modern self-designation is Alaska Native.

Janice Klein, Director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, wrote:

The Yupik are not descended from the same ancestral group (the Thule) as the other Inuit and prefer to be called either Yupik or Eskimo, but not Inuit.

Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaskan Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, directed me to their website which says:

[T]he name "Eskimo" is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world…. However, the people of Canada and Greenland prefer other names. "Inuit," meaning "people," is used in most of Canada…. Most Alaskans continue to accept the name "Eskimo," particularly because "Inuit" refers only to the Inupiat of northern Alaska, the Inuit of Canada, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, and is not a word in the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.

I found an interesting article which quotes Dr. Steven Jacobson, also of the Language Center, as saying:

Yup'ik speakers say, "We're Yup'ik Eskimos; our relatives in northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland are Inuit Eskimos; they aren't Yup'ik, and we aren't Inuit, but we're all Eskimos." Yup'ik speakers prefer to be called "Yup'iks" ... and -- in contrast to Inuit in Canada -- don't mind the word "Eskimo," but they do not like to be called "Inuit."

And I wrote to Steven Alvarez, director of Cultural Education and Strategic Initiatives at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and himself of Alaskan Native heritage. Steve wrote:

Alaska Natives have 3 groupings: Inuit or Eskimo, Indian and Aleut….Only the Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik (also know as Siberian Yupik) and the Central Yup'ik people are considered Inuit or Eskimo. Both these terms of course are western. The Natives call themselves "the people" in their own language. Some Alaska Native Inuit people will refer to themselves as Eskimo.

Obviously, this was all a grand waste of time. Six experts, who have dedicated their professional lives to working with and understanding the native cultures of the Americas, are obviously no match for one (or possibly two) snarky anonymous bloggers. I retire in shame.

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 9:00am
Jenny's picture
Jenny says:

Gene I think you are being rude.

If I were an Eskimo, I would want to be able to decide what to call myself. Education doesn't give someone authority over another's vision of themselves. Taking that authority away from someone, however well intentioned or well researched, also takes some small part of a person's humanity.

Maybe you need to be right about this. That's okay too.

posted on Sat, 12/22/2007 - 7:57pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

What if my education included finding out what Alaskan natives actually call themselves, and then reporting back. Would that be OK?

(The Alaska Native Heritage Center recommends these two sites: Alaskool and the Alaskan Native Knowledge Network, both of which have oral histories in which modern Alaskan natives refer to themselves as “Eskimo.”)

Any one person’s “need” to be right pales in comparison to the actual truth of the matter.

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 9:03am
unknown's picture
unknown says:

The people that choose to be called "Yupik" or "Inuit" matters with the person's ancestors. It doesnt matter who chooses what to be called what. it just all matters what their history is. it all depends on their history...and since you are not anything near as an Eskimo or Inuit, you dont get to say anything about all this.

posted on Mon, 03/10/2008 - 1:24pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

I'm not sure whom you are responding to, so I will just say: it is possible to learn a people's history, and it is possible to learn what they call themselves, and what they would like to be called. And it is possible to learn these things, whether you are a member of that group or not.

posted on Tue, 03/11/2008 - 2:27pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

These posts which claim that non-Eskimos are not qualified to say anything about Eskimos are rather offensive – to the Eskimos.

I am not an Eskimo. I am, however, a human being. Eskimos are human, too. As such, we share a common humanity. We can communicate with each other. We sympathize, even empathize with one another. Whatever cultural differences exist between us can be breached by sharing, by understanding and, yes, even by educating ourselves. Thus, I can be confident in sharing what I have learned about Eskimos, and Eskimos, if they are so inclined, may be confident in sharing what they have learned about me.

However, there is an attitude on this thread that says no -- I am not Eskimo, and therefore I cannot talk about them. This attitude would hold that Eskimos are so strange, so different, so weird that no one else could possibly understand them. In short, this attitude holds that Eskimos are not really human, and thus we humans shouldn’t say anything about them. I reject this.

An alternate interpretation is that the posters to this blog believe that Eskimos are perfectly human, but I am not. I have some defect which prevents me from understanding you Earthlings. I would reject this, too, if I could stop laughing long enough.

A third interpretation is that human nature doesn’t exist – that we are all so individual and so unique that no one can possibly talk about anything except themselves. Which makes this whole enterprise of communicating – including writing and reading blog posts – a colossal waste of time.

So, guys, which is it?

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 9:10am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

OK, enough nonsense. Here are the facts:

“Inuit” refers to those cultures descended from the Thule, the first people to settle in the high Arctic of North America. Inuit live in Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

“Eskimo” refers to the Inuit plus the Yupik – a culturally and morphologically similar people who do not descend from the Thule. The Yupik live in Alaska and Siberia.

The only Eskimo people in Canada and Greenland are Inuit. They prefer to be called by that name.

In Alaska, the Yupik do not want to be called “Inuit,” a word which does not exist in their language. Eskimos in Alaska prefer to be called by their cultural names, but recognize that this is not always possible. “Eskimo” is still in broad use in Alaska.

At one time, it was thought that the word “Eskimo” derived from an Algonquin term meaning “eater of raw meat,” and that this was an insult. We now known that the word comes a Cree dialect and means “netter of snowshoes.”

Further posts on this subject are requested to cite their sources if they wish to contest any of the above.

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 9:14am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I learned about this once, and now it's all gone from my brain. Is "Eskimo," as it is applied to Eskimos (by themselves), a post-contact term?

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 12:23pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

As far as I know, yes.

posted on Mon, 12/24/2007 - 10:00am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

well that would be weird. i only know one word for snow and that is SNOW!

posted on Sun, 12/23/2007 - 5:24pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Snow, blizzard, flake, flurry, drift, powder, snow storm, glacier, ice, icicle, ice floe, sleet... when you start translating the "15 Eskimo words for snow," they turn out to be fairly similar to these English terms.

posted on Mon, 12/24/2007 - 10:03am
Ap'a's picture
Ap'a says:

There is an enormous amount of misinformation in the various comments above. I live in Barrow Alaska. Almost all of my neighbors are Inupiat. My eldest grandchild is now attending UAF, and incidentally, like her parents, she speaks Yup'ik at home.

Of all the quoted "experts" above, Steve Jacobson and Larry Kaplan are precisely correct.

Most of all, please note the "Thule" refers to a "technology". It was adopted just as rapidly by the Yupik people as it was by the Inuit people. The distinction between Dorset and Thule is not the same as the distinction between Yupik and Inuit.

"Eskimo" is the only word in the English language that is inclusive of all of the Eskimo cultures and languages. It is unnecessary in casual use in Canada and Greenland simply because all of the Eskimos there are Inuit Eskimos. In Alaska the term Eskimo is necessarily in wide use because there are both Yupik and Inuit.

Incidentally, the "Inuit" people in Alaska never refer to themselves using that term. They use Inupiat when speaking their own language (Inupiaq), and Eskimo when speaking English.

posted on Fri, 03/14/2008 - 6:17am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I speak "eskimo." I think that entitles me to an opinion, right? ;)
Ap'a is exactly correct south of Nome too. The Yup'ik tend to self describe as Eskimo. Friend of mine got upset about it when an `Inuit` told him it wasn't okay to call himself Eskimo. I know Steve Jacobson, and he's got yugcetun speaking kids and the lot. What I just know from my own experience, he knows from studying it rigorously. And he's dead on.

The rest of this nonsense about `oh geez you're being racist` is stupid. In AK, it's not.

posted on Tue, 08/05/2008 - 3:38pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Does anybody know how to write ALASKA in Yup'ik language? Please help!

posted on Fri, 10/22/2010 - 2:34pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Im half inupiaq eskimo , I live in fairbanks,alaska . "snow" is pronounced in inupiaq language "KUHn-ee-CHUk"

posted on Sun, 10/30/2011 - 5:48am

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