In reality, the number of words depends on the definitions of Eskimo (there are a number of languages) and snow, and on the method of counting numbers of words in languages that have quite different grammatical structures from English.
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativism holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. This idea is also reflected in the concept behind General Semantics. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, Whorf referred to Eskimo languages having seven distinct words for snow. Later writers inflated the figure: by 1978, the number quoted had reached 50, and on February 9, 1984, an editorial in The New York Times gave the number as one hundred.
The idea that Eskimos had so many words for snow has given rise to the idea that Eskimos viewed snow very differently from people of other cultures. For example, when it snows, others see snow, but Eskimos could see any manifestation of their great and varied vocabulary. Vulgarized versions of Whorf's views hold not only that Eskimo speakers can choose among several snow words, but that they do not categorize all seven (or however many) as "snow": to them, each word is supposedly a separate concept. Thus language is thought to impose a particular view of the world — not just for Eskimo languages, but for all groups. Whorf, a well-informed and respectful student of Native American cultures, held more sophisticated views than this caricature would suggest.
It is reasonable to suppose that Eskimo languages would have several extra words to describe snow, which is specifically the point of Boas's theory. This is because they deal with snow more than other cultures, just as artists have more words to describe the various details of their profession — what a non-artist calls "paint", the artist identifies as "oil paint", "acrylic paint", or "watercolor". This does not mean that these two individuals are observing two different objects, nor does it mean that the artist would be confused by the idea that oil paint and acrylic paint are related.
In fact, the number of Eskimo words for snow is essentially unbounded, because Eskimo languages (like many native North American languages) are polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages allow noun-incorporation, resulting in a single word that is the equivalent of a phrase in other languages (Spencer 1991), having a system of derivational suffixes for word formation to which speakers can recursively add snow-referring roots. As in English, there are a handful of these snow-referring roots, such as for "snowflake", "blizzard", "drift". What an English speaker would describe as "frosty sparkling snow" a speaker of an Eskimo language such as Inuinnaqtun would call "patuqun", and express "is covered in frosty sparkling snow" as "patuqutaujuq". Arguably the concept is the same in both languages. This is true of things other than snow: "qinmiq" means "dog", "qinmiarjuk" "young dog", and "qinmiqtuqtuq" "goes by dog team".
The second fallacy comes from a misconception of what are to be considered "words". As in other polysynthetic languages, the use of derivational suffixes and noun-incorporation results in terms or language codes that may include various descriptive nuances, whether describing snow or any other concept. Because Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, they describe concepts in compound terms or 'words' of unlimited length.
GET TO KNOW YOUR SNOW FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SNOW, CHECK THE NATIONAL SNOW AND ICE DATA CENTER'S WEB SITE AT WWW.NSIDC.ORG/ SNOW.(OPINION)(Editorial)
Dec 04, 2005; You may have heard that Eskimos are so intimately acquainted with snow that they have more than 400 words for it. The story is a...