As everybody knows, the Eskimo have dozens, if not hundreds, of different words for snow, which proves the cultural relativity of knowledge, perception, or whatever.

Except that they don’t. I have occasionally seen sceptical comments about the Eskimo snow words, but I have only just found an authoritative reference:

Laura Martin: “Eskimo words for snow”: a case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example. American Anthropologist, 1986, vol. 88, 418-22.

Laura Martin traces the origin of the great snow myth to a book by Franz Boas, where he mentions four Eskimo snow-related words to illustrate a point about the structure of Eskimo language. But the story really took off when Benjamin Lee Whorf used the snow example in an essay on ‘Science and Linguistics’. Unlike Boas, Whorf (who actually had no expert knowledge of Eskimo language) was vague about the number of snow words, but claimed that they showed the way in which language structures perception and thought. After Whorf, the example spread, and (sorry!) snowballed out of control, until in 1984 a New York Times editorial could confidently assert that the Eskimos distinguished 100 different types of snow.

So how many different words do the Eskimo have for snow? Well, it depends how you count them, but according to Martin, ‘There seems to be no reason to posit more than two different roots that can properly be said to refer to snow itself’.

Mind you, English slang does have at least fifty words for penis…


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