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New Scientist: There really are 50 words in Eskimo for 'snow'





"Anthropologist Franz Boas didn’t mean to spark a century-long argument. Traveling through the icy wastes of Baffin Island in northern Canada during the 1880s, Boas simply wanted to study the life of the local Inuit people, joining their sleigh rides, trading caribou skins and learning their folklore. As he wrote proudly to his fiancee, “I am now truly like an Eskimo. . . . I scarcely eat any European foodstuffs any longer but am living entirely on seal meat.” He was particularly intrigued by their language, noting the elaborate terms used to describe the frozen landscape: “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled,” to name just two.

Mentioning his observations in the introduction to his 1911 book “Handbook of American Indian Languages,” he ignited the claim that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow. Although the idea continues to capture public imagination, most linguists considered it an urban legend, born of sloppy scholarship and journalistic exaggeration. Some have even gone as far as to name it the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest evidence, however, suggests that Boas was right all along.

This debate has rumbled on partly because of a grammatical peculiarity of the Eskimo family of languages. Boas studied Inuit, one of the two main branches; the other is Yupik. Each has spawned many dialects, but uniting the family is a feature known as polysynthesis, which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information in one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word."

Get the Story:
David Robson: There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow’ (The New Scientist / Washington Post 1/14)