British singer Kate Bush released her new album Monday, and linguists everywhere held their breath.
With the title “50 Words for Snow,” the album is playing off the notion that the many Eskimo languages have dozens of ways to express that white, fluffy stuff.
The Eskimo-words-for-snow example has been used for decades to illustrate the connection between culture, language and environment. Supposedly, this expansive snow vocabulary is evidence of the nuanced influence our surroundings have on our speech.
There’s only one problem with the example: It’s inaccurate.
Luckily, Kate Bush avoids any problems: The title track is actually a list of her own flowery words for snow, like erase-o-dust, slipperella and the Klingon peDtaH ‘ej chIS qo’.
But the ubiquity of the Eskimo-snow example highlights the need to examine one of language’s most curious and most commonly perpetuated misconceptions.
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.