Here in central New Hampshire, we got another 10-12 inches of snow last night. It’s been a winter of heavy precipitation, with sleet giving way to wet snow which turns into powder which eventually freezes into rock solid ice. This post was originally going to be about how I now understand why the Inuit language has split “snow” into so many different and specific nouns: there really are that many different types of snow. (Keep in mind that I’m a native Southern Californian, so I thought snow was something they manufactured on cold days for ski slopes.)
But then I discovered this inconvenient fact: that classic story about Inuit language and snow isn’t quite right. Like so many really good linguistic stories (i.e., Sapir-Whorf), the story of Inuit nouns and snow is too good to be true. Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum describes what’s really going on:
The story about Inuit (or Inuktitut, or Yup’ik, or more generally, Eskimo) words for snow is completely wrong. People say that speakers of these languages have 23, or 42, or 50, or 100 words for snow — the numbers often seem to have been picked at random. The spread of the myth was tracked in a paper by Laura Martin (American Anthropologist 88 (1986), 418-423), and publicized more widely by a later humorous embroidering of the theme by G. K. Pullum (reprinted as chapter 19 of his 1991 book of essays The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). But the Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn’t that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning “slush”, a root meaning “blizzard”, a root meaning “drift”, and a few others — very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.
That does not mean there are huge numbers of unrelated basic terms for huge numbers of finely differentiated snow types. It means that the notion of fixing a number of snow words, or even a definition of what a word for snow would be, is meaningless for these languages. You could write down not just thousands but millions of words built from roots that refer to snow if you had the time. But they would all be derivatives of a fairly small number of roots. And you could write down just as many derivatives of any other root: fish, or coffee, or excrement.
Anyways, we really should have more words for snow.