There’s a certain kind of schoolyard wisdom that kids love to throw around. They’re facts like “antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest word in English” or “if you swallow bubble gum, it stays in your stomach for seven years.” When you get older, you might realize that not all of these are entirely true. Then there are cases where the facts lie somewhere between true and not true. That’s the case with one of the most widespread pieces of schoolyard wisdom: The Inuit people have 50 words for snow.
While it may seem like the kind of thing that makes you go “Oh, neat” and then you move on, there’s a lot of assumptions packed into this one sentence. Here, we’ll unpack the idea itself, looking at where it originated and then exploring its legacy.
You might notice we’re using the name Inuit, though this claim is usually associated with a different term. That term, however, has a racist history and is considered derogatory by many Inuit people, so we’ll avoid it here.
Where Does This Claim Come From?
First, we should mention that there’s more than one version of this phrase. You might have heard that there are 30 words for snow, or 100 or 200. It’s similar to the idea of a man recounting a fishing story, where the fish gets larger with each retelling.
The original claim had no specific number attached at all. It’s traced back to Franz Boas, an anthropologist who spent time in northern Canada in the 1880s, studying the behavior and language of the Inuit people. In 1911, he published the Handbook of American Indian Languages, in which he at one point mentions the Inuit having an interesting diversity of terms that refer to snow: “Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, qana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, piqsirpoq, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT.”
Yes, there are only four examples mentioned here, which is much less than 50. For reasons not entirely clear, however, the figure was inflated over the following decades. A paper by linguist Laura Martin traces the evolution of the claim. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist who was very familiar with Boas’ work, popularized the claim in the 1940s, but also got rid of a lot of Boas’ nuance. Whorf didn’t cite any actual data, but he used the fact the Inuit had more than one term for snow to support the theory he’s most famous for today: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory is that the language you speak changes the way you see the world (and it’s mostly been disproven). Whorf used Boas’ claim to show that the Inuit are somehow different because they have so many words for snow.
After Whorf mentioned it, the “words for snow” claim started popping up everywhere. Influential linguistics textbooks cited it as fact, and by the 1970s, the number of words had inflated to 50. While at first, it was mainly something that students would learn, the claim had passed into the public domain by the 1980s, when a New York Times opinion piece casually mentioned that actually, the Inuit have 100 words for snow. Since then, it’s been accepted by many as fact, though few people have really tested how true it is.
Do The Inuit Have 50 Words For Snow?
You’d think that answering this question would be as simple as opening up a dictionary and counting the entries, but it’s not. And the 50 words for snow claim is so widespread, it has made finding an answer even more confusing.
The first thing to note is that there is more than one Inuit language. Boas lumped together some related languages in his research, and so from the very start, it’s oversimplifying to say “the Inuit” without specifying a language.
In 2013, the Washington Post published an article about the claim, saying that it is in fact true based on the recent research by linguist Igor Krupnik. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who has had a long history with the 50 words for snow claim, picked the article apart. The main problem he found is that the Washington Post said that Boas originated the claim that the Inuit had dozens of words for snow, which was never the case. He also notes some other mischaracterizations in the article.
The main reason that it’s difficult to quantify Inuit words for snow is that the Inuit languages are agglutinative. That means that to build a new word, you piece together existing parts. In theory, then, there could be an infinite number of words for snow, because you can make new ones all the time. Boas’ initial observation wasn’t about how many words there were, but how many word roots. To give an English example, “school” and “preschool” are two different words, but they have the same word root. Inuit languages have more than one word root for “snow,” while English has only one. They certainly don’t have 50 word roots for snow.
The Legacy Of The Claim
What does it mean when you have more than one word for a concept? For the most part, it seems like people refer to this fact to show that languages invent multiple words for a concept when they care about that concept a lot. There is a common formulation that goes, “If the Inuit have 50 words for snow, then [group] must have 50 words for [concept the group cares about].” For example, “If the Inuit have 50 words for snow, then the French must have 50 words for romance.”
This line of thought is so pervasive that Geoffrey Pullum, one of the linguists mentioned above, coined a word for it: snowclone. A snowclone is any trite phrase that is often used in articles. Other examples include “[X] is the new black” and “Love in the time of [X].”
On one hand, there is some truth to the fact that a person’s vocabulary on a topic expands when they get more into that topic. Any niche hobby has a certain amount of jargon that, to an outsider, sounds completely impenetrable.
On the other hand, there is something wrong with the phrasing of “50 words for snow.” That makes it sound like a single Inuit person is using a bunch of different, interchangeable terms for the same concept. That’s simply not the case, though. While there are certainly synonyms in every language, languages tend to be economical. Very rarely do two words mean the exact same thing, and never do 50 words mean the exact same thing. “The Inuit have words for different types of snow” isn’t as catchy, though.
It’s unlikely that this schoolyard wisdom will ever fully die, because it’s become ingrained in our language. At best it’s misleading, and at worst, it’s the kind of claim that makes you think that people who speak other languages are different or weird. Having a robust vocabulary for the world around you is anything but strange, however. It’s a good reminder that the next time you hear someone rattle off a fact you first heard on the playground, it’s worth checking how much truth there is behind it.