The claim that Eskimo languages (specifically, Yupik and Inuit) have an unusually large number of words for "snow", first loosely attributed to the work of anthropologist Franz Boas, has become a cliché often used to support the controversial linguistic-relativity hypothesis that a language's structure (sound, grammar, vocabulary, etc.) shapes its speakers' view of the world. This "strong version" of the hypothesis is largely now discredited, though the basic notion that Eskimo languages have many more root words for "snow" than the English language is itself supported by a single 2010 study.
Franz Boas did not make quantitative claims but rather pointed out that the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word. A good deal of the ongoing debate thus depends on how one defines "word", and perhaps even "word root".
The first re-evaluation of the claim was by linguist Laura Martin in 1986, who traced the history of the claim and argued that its prevalence had diverted attention from serious research into linguistic relativity. A subsequent influential and humorous, and polemical, essay by Geoff Pullum repeated Martin's critique, calling the process by which the so-called "myth" was created the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax". Pullum argued that the fact that the number of word roots for snow is about equally large in Eskimoan languages and English indicates that there exists no difference in the size of their respective vocabularies to define snow. Other specialists in the matter of Eskimoan languages and their knowledge of snow and especially sea ice argue against this notion and defend Boas's original fieldwork amongst the Inuit of Baffin Island.
Languages in the Inuit and Yupik language groups add suffixes to words to express the same concepts expressed in English and many other languages by means of compound words, phrases, and even entire sentences. One can create a practically unlimited number of new words in the Eskimoan languages on any topic, not just snow, and these same concepts can be expressed in other languages using combinations of words. In general and especially in this case, it is not necessarily meaningful to compare the number of words between languages that create words in different ways due to different grammatical structures.
On the other hand, some anthropologists have argued that Boas, who lived among Baffin islanders and learnt their language, did in fact take account of the polysynthetic nature of Inuit language and included "only words representing meaningful distinctions" in his account.
Studies of the Sami languages of Norway, Sweden and Finland, conclude that the languages have anywhere from 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 300 different words for types of snow, tracks in snow, and conditions of the use of snow.
Origins and significance
The essential morphological question is why a language would say, for example, "lake", "river", and "brook" instead of something like "waterplace", "waterfast", and "waterslow". English has many snow-related words, but Boas's intent may have been to connect differences in culture with differences in language.
Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind general semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having several words for snow:
Later writers, prominently Roger Brown in his "Words and things" and Carol Eastman in her "Aspects of Language and Culture", inflated the figure in sensationalized stories: by 1978, the number quoted had reached fifty, and on February 9, 1984, an unsigned editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred. However, the linguist G. Pullum shows that Inuit and other related dialects do not possess an extraordinarily large number of terms for snow.
There is no one Eskimo language. A number of cultures are referred to as Eskimo, and a number of different languages are termed Eskimo–Aleut languages. These languages may have more or fewer words for "snow", or perhaps more importantly, more or fewer words that are commonly applied to snow, depending on which language is considered.
Three distinct word roots with the meaning "snow" are reconstructed for the Proto-Eskimo language qaniɣ 'falling snow', aniɣu 'fallen snow', and apun 'snow on the ground'. These three stems are found in all Inuit languages and dialects—except for West Greenlandic, which lacks aniɣu. The Alaskan and Siberian Yupik people (among others) however, are not Inuit peoples, nor are their languages Inuit or Inupiaq, but all are classifiable as Eskimos, lending further ambiguity to the "Eskimo Words for Snow" debate.