For decades there has been a popular belief—alternately debunked and defended by various linguists and anthropologists—that there are a great many Eskimo words for snow. More specifically, the belief is that while there are lots of specific words for different kinds of snow, there is no word that can be used to refer to any type of snow generically—that is, no direct synonym for the English word snow. Some accounts claim that there are nine different Eskimo snow words; some say there are dozens; others insist there are hundreds of distinct words for snow. Critics argue that there may be just two Eskimo root words for snow (from which all other words are derived), and that in any case, English, too, has plenty of different terms for snow—flake, flurry, powder, blizzard, avalanche, and so on. I do not intend to resolve this debate here, but I would like to show that when it comes to talking about a snow crust—a thin hard layer on top of snow—English can more than hold its own.
First, a brief discursus.
The Snowball Effect
To even begin to fathom how many Eskimo words there may be for snow, one must define what is meant by Eskimo—a term often regarded as offensive when applied to members of certain ethnicities. (Some people, in an attempt to avoid saying the “E” word, substitute the name Inuit, but that term properly refers to only a subset of the people previously referred to as “Eskimo.”) Linguistically speaking, however, the word Eskimo properly refers to two language groups within the Eskimo-Aleut language family: Yupik (which consists of five distinct languages) and Inuit-Inupiaq, a dialect continuum—meaning that dialects spoken in neighboring areas are mutually intelligible, while dialects whose speakers are separated by great distances are not. Depending on how you count, there are four or five major Inuit-Inupiaq dialect groups, of which the one best known to outsiders is probably Inuktitut. By the time you count all the individual dialects and the variety of names they use…well, you have almost as many names as you do people—the total number of people who speak any Eskimo language is less than 80,000. In any case, my point is that saying there are many “Eskimo” words for snow is sort of like saying there are many “European” words for love: trivially true but irrelevant.
So let’s suppose we narrow the question down to just one particular dialect of one Eskimo language. Surely there must be one of them with lots of words for snow, right? Well, maybe. Eskimo languages are notoriously complex, and it takes someone with serious training and experience to be able to tease apart which utterances even count as distinct words. Consider that the English words snowflake and snowfall, although they appear as separate entries in the dictionary, are really just compounds based on a single root word for an underlying concept. Eskimo languages make it much harder to spot derivatives like these, and once you do find them, you’re back to making an arbitrary decision as to whether they should appear as separate entries in your snow dictionary.
Eight Is Enough
Interesting as this puzzle is, I would like to point out that individual Eskimo languages have only one or two words each for snow crust. For example, Western Greenlandic has one word for snow crust while in the Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect of Central Alaskan Yupik there are two—which, by the way, look suspiciously like derivations of the same root. How anyone can get by with so few terms I’ll never know; in English, we seem to need a lot more—eight, to be exact. And OK, they’re all two-word phrases, but still—I think they put the whole debate in an entirely new light. Here they are, courtesy of the Glossary of Meteorology at the American Meteorological Society:
- snow crust: the general term for any hard surface on snow
- sun crust: a crust formed when the sun melts the top layer of snow, and then it refreezes
- rain crust: a crust formed when rain falls on snow and then freezes
- spring crust: a crust formed when warmer weather (but not necessarily sunshine) melts the top layer of snow and it refreezes
- wind crust: a crust that forms when wind packs down a layer of snow that has already been deposited
- wind slab: a crust in which the wind packs the snow at the same time as it’s being deposited
- ice crust: a crust that forms when water (from whatever source) flows onto the surface of snow and then freezes
- film crust: a very thin ice crust
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 18, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on July 26, 2004.