In reality, words in Eskimo languages are not comparable to English, because they don’t delineate between words the same way. Eskimo languages are agglutinative, meaning speakers can tack on
multiple suffixes to a root word to manipulate its meaning.
This feature allows Eskimo language speakers to describe in one word a concept that requires many in English. So one can simply add the appropriate suffixes to the root for “snow” to form words meaning “frosty snow” or “sparkly snow.”
In fact, these derivative words aren’t even restricted to nouns, as Geoffrey Pullum, author of “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” wrote. With a few suffixes and inflections, an Eskimo speaker could come up with a single word meaning, “They were wandering around gathering up lots of stuff that looked like snowflakes.”
So technically, speakers of these languages don’t have 10, or 50 or even 1,000 words for snow. Because of their language structure, they have an infinite number.
Now, it would be interesting if these languages featured dozens of unique root words for snow. But as Pullum wrote, it turns out they have about the same number as English: one for snowflake, one for snow on the ground, one for slush, one for blizzard and a few others.
So how did the 50-words-for-snow example attain the almost folkloric status it holds today?
According to a study by anthropologist Laura Martin, the first reference to Eskimo languages and snow came in 1911, in a paper by linguist Franz Boas. Boas pointed out four unrelated root words for snow in Eskimo languages, including words for “snow on the ground” and “drifting snow.” The point of the example, believe it or not, was to warn against the superficial comparison of language structures.
By the 1950s, the example was picked up by several authors, some of whom failed to distinguish between root words and their derivatives. From there, the idea, well, snowballed.
Textbooks misinterpreted the factoid and began to disseminate it as proof of the link between language and culture.
The idea that language is a reflection of our environment certainly is valid. But using this example is disingenuous, and obscures the legitimately fascinating things we can learn by studying other languages.
Mark Abadi is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a senior linguistics major from Charlotte. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.