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T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but when it comes to weather, January is in fact much crueler, bringing most of the Northern Hemisphere its coldest temperatures of the year. During this frosty season, we’ve asked ex-Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to come in from the cold and put a chill on some of the most persistent cold-weather myths he could think of. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you freeze. (Sorry, we borrowed all these puns from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue in Batman and Robin.)

Icy Myth #1: Eskimos Have, Like, a Hundred Words for Snow.

This classic bit of folklore comes from a surprisingly authoritative academic source: in 1883, the great anthropologist Franz Boas spent a year among the Inuit people of Canada’s Baffin Island, and later wrote that the language there was surprisingly expressive on the subject of snow. He wrote, “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.” This innocent observation quickly traveled from academic literature to the popular imagination, with the number of words quickly snowballing from Boas’s four up to fifty or more. By 1984, when the notion appeared in The New York Times, the supposed number of Eskimo snow words was one hundred.

Most linguists now believe this isn’t true. “The Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English,” writes Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct. “The idea that Eskimos have many more words for snow than English speakers is a myth,” agrees Geoffrey Pullum. (Quick note to Canadians and other well-meaning nitpickers: no, “Inuit” is not always the correct replacement for “Eskimo.” Indigenous Alaskans include the Yupik and Inupiat peoples, who aren’t Inuit at all. But I digress.) There are two problems with assembling a definitive count. First, there isn’t just one Eskimo-Aleut language—there are at least eight, depending on how you count dialects. And secondly, these languages are all polysynthetic, meaning that Eskimo vocabulary gets created on the fly by combining smaller morphemes. We might say “last night’s wet snow with a thick frozen crust,” but in a Yupik or Inuit language, all those ideas could be combined into a single “word.”

In the interest of “teaching the controversy,” let me point out that New Scientist magazine last month interviewed a Smithsonian researcher named Igor Krupnik, who claims that at least some Eskimo languages do use dozens of different morphemes for snow and ice. So the “hundreds words for snow” thing, while overhyped, might not quite be the “hoax” that some linguists have claimed. But keep in mind that a complete English snow-cabulary could get pretty long as well, including words along the lines of “slush,” “blizzard,” “flurry,” “drift,” “flake,” and so on.

And whatever you do, don’t believe the oft-passed-around Internet list of “Eskimo words for snow” credited to one Phil James. It starts out simple, with “Eskimo” translations for “powder snow,” “drifting snow,” “blowing snow,” and so on, but gradually drifts into more outré territory: “green snow,” “fried snow,” “the idea of snow,” “snow used to make Eskimo Margaritas,” and “a small snowball, preserved in Lucite, that had been handled by Johnny Depp.” If you believe this is an authentic Eskimo glossary, I have a bridge across the Bering Strait I’d like to sell you.

Quick Quiz: What 1992 song was the sole hit for the Canadian rap/reggae musician Darrin O’Brien, a.k.a. Snow?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr user Romain Cloff. Used under a Creative Commons License.

lordtara


quality posts: 0 Private Messages lordtara

Informer

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag

I suspect the problem is more one with the concept of a "word" than "snow." How many terms do even we have for snow? As suggested by the reference to an Internet list (which I've managed to not see, thankfully), associating nearly any adjective with the noun is a new concept.

Is the snow wet, heavy, light, powdery, dirty, or yellow? Is it in a drift, patchy, or storm? Verb or noun?

Then there are the terms that don't sound like "snow," like blizzard, flurry, flake, and so forth.

I'd bet that a hundred terms in common usage is sensible even in the United States, but a hundred distinctly-evolved words more implies a convergence of many cultures (like the Saxon/French similar words in English--"deep" and "profound," say) than a need to distinguish between kinds of snow.

howdoesth


quality posts: 0 Private Messages howdoesth

"Eskimo" may be the most generic term for the native peoples of the American North, but it's still basically a racial slur. There are some pretty generic terms for the native peoples of, say for example, Africa that we aren't using anymore.

bsmith1


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inkycatz


quality posts: 105 Private Messages inkycatz

I just thought there were 50 words for snow.

I'm just hanging out, really.

chetchez


quality posts: 0 Private Messages chetchez

DaLemming


quality posts: 7 Private Messages DaLemming

Inuits build words from smaller words? So Inuits speak German?

jamesbottomtooth


quality posts: 41 Private Messages jamesbottomtooth

http://youtu.be/T5x6r_wg_o8