Stories tagged inuit

Dec
05
2007

Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language?  Not as much as you might think.
Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language? Not as much as you might think.Courtesy drp

After this week's storms, the people of Minnesota have developed many new words for snow -- most of which are unprintable on a family blog. But do the Eskimos, who live along the Arctic Ocean and deal with far more snow than we ever do, have an unusually large vocabulary to describe the fluffy white stuff?

Not really. Though the legend does have some basis in fact.

In the 1930s, anthropologists Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir argued that
language, thought and experience influenced one another. They believed that not only did a people’s environment shape their language (the “100 words for snow” idea), but that language also shaped environment – or, at least, the ways you could think about your environment. According to Whorf, the grammar and vocabulary of a people strongly influence how they see the world -- if you have no word for something, you can't really think about it.

Whorf did experiments which gave some support to the second part of the theory. But no one has been able to compile much evidence for the first part. Thus, most linguists today find the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis incomplete, and instead advance theories that the capacity for language is “hard-wired” into every human brain.

So, what about Eskimo words for “snow”? Well, that’s hard to answer, because Inuit languages (Inuit being the largest culture commonly referred to as "Eskimo") make extensive use of morphemes--“sub-words” that can be added to a root word to alter its meaning. Kind of like prefixes and suffixes in English.

Anyway, linguists have found about 15 Inuit root words relating to snow and snow phenomena, which is not that much different from the number of such words in English. But the use of morphemes in Inuit greatly increases the number of snow-related terms.

A good summary of the issue can be found here.

Want to hear what Inuktitut, a Canadian Inuit language, sounds like? Go here.

To learn more about life in the Arctic, check out our Object of the Month for December, a pair of Inuit snow goggles.