Are There Really 50 Words for Snow?

Year round, Alaska’s winters inspire curiosity from visitors. It’s frequent that I’m asked how often it snows, or how much snow I’ve seen at once. Alaska is a winter paradise for winter activities, like skiing, snowshoeing and dog mushing. It’s no wonder then that when a friend told that the Alaskan Yup’ik language had over fifty words for snow, I was inclined to believe him. Over time I began to hear this more and more, and eventually, I got around to see if I could find all fifty words.

Fact or Myth?

Initially, I was confused to find that most articles I could find were concerned with the Inuit language. Several listed a different number of words for snow. I was quickly lost. On finally tracing down the roots of this urban legend, I found myself at the memoirs of famous anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas noted that the Inuit tribe he was with had several words for snow. The passage was misinterpreted and became the myth heard today.

The confusion with Boas’ passage stems from how Inuit and Yup’ik language families use words. In English, one word is usually meant to describe something. In the Inuit and Yup’ik language families, a word can have any number of suffixes to change what the word means or how it applies. One word can be a noun, verb, or entire sentence! The list of words for snow I was looking for simply doesn’t exist. More importantly, though, this system of suffixes allows there to be an infinite number of words for snow, limited only by the imagination of the person saying them.

No definitive list

It is still unfair to simply say that a number of words are infinite, as all words are still based off of some root. Proto-Eskimo languages share three roots for snow: ‘qaniɣ’, for falling snow, ‘*aniɣu’ for fallen snow, and ‘*apun’ for snow on the ground. Several variants of these words are used commonly in Native languages. In Central Yup’ik, fluffy but dry snow might be called ‘muruaneq’. If you take a glass of water and throw it in the extremely cold air, it will crystallize before it hits the ground. The word for this is ‘cikuq ‘erluni’. In Inuktitut (Inuit has spoken on Nunavik), wet but fluffy snow might be called ‘matsaaruti’.

While there is no definitive list like I set out to find, you could say there is a word for every possible type of snow. As if there weren’t enough things to see and do in Alaska, each time I look again there’s another fascinating chapter to learn about. For now, snow has begun to fall and I need to come up with a good word for it.