What Does the Eskimo Say?

December 8th, 2013

This time of the year means a lot of different things for different people: holiday shopping, decorating the house, planning out travel itineraries, and so on. For anyone living in Utah—like us at CommGap—it means something else: snow. Lots of it. And each year without fail, snowfall brings with it the resurrection of a certain urban myth: “Eskimos have [insert large number here] words for snow.” You may have wondered before how true this claim is, and while there isn’t a clear yes-or-no mythbuster answer, here are some factoids that are bound to impress your family, friends, date, and your fellow eggnog drinkers.

First, lets take a look at the Eskimo language. To start, there is no one “Eskimo language.”  Eskimo is a term used to designate a number of different groups of people, including the Inuit and Yupik peoples. They speak a variety of languages, including Central Alaskan Yup’ik, West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), and Inuktitut, each with varying dialects. That aside, these languages share a common language family (Eskimo-Aleut) and an interesting linguistic structure that lends itself to what we could call “word creation.” Essentially, suffixes are added onto root words in a very flexible fashion, and these suffixes, or postbases, add information and transform the root words into complete ideas.

This system of combining suffixes onto root words certainly isn’t limited to snow; it extends of things like fish, coffee, excrement, even the word for word.  For instance, the West Greenlandic root for “tongue” oqaq, turns into oqaaseq (word), oqaasipiluuppaa (he lectures him) oqaluppoq (speaks), oqaatiginerluppaa (speaks badly about him), and many more combinations. As one can imagine, the list of variations to describe things can get extraordinarily lengthy. Using one of the several West Greenlandic root words dealing with snow such as qanik (snow in the air), and aput (snow on the ground) the number of combinations far surpasses the 5, 20, 50, or 150 words “Eskimos” are said to use for snow.

In fact, in these languages, it’s hardly practical to identify any of these combinations as “words,” since they are quite different from how we identify words in English and other common languages. That being said, it is without a doubt that the Eskimo peoples utilize their flexible language to give extremely detailed descriptions of snow and ice. The Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53 terms for snow, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline snow that looks like salt. Terms for ice can be even more complex. Even short combinations can have very detailed inherent meanings. The term Nuyilek in Yupik means “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.”

Differentiating between these different types of snow and ice is clearly important to the survival and prosperity of the Eskimo peoples, and the languages they speak lend themselves  nicely to creating succinct word groupings to express large amounts of information. In that sense—taking into account the differing language structures between Eskimo languages and a language like English—the myth is somewhat correct.  But since the definition of a ‘word” is debatable in the Eskimo languages, it’s hardly worth arguing with specific numbers. Just keep in mind that the wide variety of descriptions Eskimo peoples have for snow and ice has a lot to do with how their language is structured, and this has helped them better classify their surroundings.

Now, if you’d like an example of a language that doesn’t use suffix synthesis to create dense terms, research the Sami language family and the words the indigenous peoples of northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway use for another holiday entity: reindeer.