From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Stuart P. Derby) Newsgroups: alt.folklore.urban Subject: Eskimo words for Snow Date: 2 Nov 1994 22:54:58 GMT
Does "Eskimo" REALLY have some megaboss number of words for snow? Well that depends on what "megaboss" means, of course. And it also depends on what language you decide is "Eskimo". The dialects spoken by coastal native peoples from the east of Siberia to Greenland are classed as Eskimo, but many scholars divide them into two languages, Yupik and Inuit, with some scholars further sub-dividing these dialects. Inuit (also called Inupik) is the best candidate from a folkloric point of view, being spoken most widely, from Greenland to northeastern Alaska, having been written earlier (1742), having about twice as many speakers, and having had longer and greater contact with "Western Civilization". (Greenlandic Inuit contains 4 words borrowed from medieval Norse.)
Another complication to the issue is simply the notion of "word". Languages vary quite drastically in how the base units of meaning (morphemes) are combined into words, if they're combined at all, and our common notion of "word" needs clarifying. For example, in English, are "book" and "books" two SEPARATE words? I would guess that most of us would think not. (What about "book", "handbook", "guidebook", "workbook"?) However, many languages are "isolating", wherein one word corresponds to one element of the situation, and would use two separate words to say "books". A speaker of such a language might well regard "book" and "books" as two separate words. The Eskimo languages are at the other extreme, and are the prototypical example of a polysynthetic language, wherein one word contains several elements of the situation. This allows very complex ideas to be expressed in one word, e.g. 'tikitqaarminaitnigaa' "he(1) said that he(2) would not be able to arrive first".
Thus "my snow", "your snow", etc., would each be one word in Inuit, a stem form with a possessive affix. The Eskimo languages use derived words extensively, and there are fewer than 2,000 base stems in the West Greenlandic dialect With all that said, I'll just present some word lists and let everyone come up with their own opinion...
This word list is extracted from an Eskimo to English "dictionary" and is definitely not comprehensive. This was the worst such compilation I have ever worked with; among other problems, the compilers' attempts to alphabetize things, even short indices, failed miserably (e.g. "snow" before "seasons"). Consider also this from the preface:
Be it noticed beforehand that the Eskimo are not agreed in the use of their language with reference to many words -- not only that in the South here and there other expressions are used, and also that to many a word another meaning is given than in the North, but even in one and the same place not infrequently such differences are found. And frequently the female sex has again its peculiar expressions. With regard to the latter, not much notice has been taken in composing this dictionary, because the men often only laugh about them; ...
This word list is taken from a book on West Greenlandic grammar is almost certainly not comprehensive. I've entered the list as it appears in Fortescue's "West Greenlandic". Note that in Fortescue 'q' corresponds to 'k' in Peck.
Does Eskimo have some megaboss number of words for snow? It depends on how you count, but they certainly have more than English.
While English "igloo" meaning 'snow house' comes from Inuit, "iglo" (or "illu") more generally means 'house' or home' in most dialects. Sometimes houses are constructed of peat[3,4]. English "kayak" comes from Inuit "qayaq" (means the same)[3,4]. The stereotypical Eskimo name Nanook corresponds to "nanuq" 'polar bear'.
Scholars sure do have understated ways of sniping at each other: "In fact Bourquin's tendency to describe the Labrador dialect by quoting at length from Kleinschmidt's description of Greenlandic is unavoidably a major methodological impediment for present-day researchers."
 Encyc. Britannica,15th Ed.,1984, ISBN 0-85229-413-1.
Macropaedia Vol. 6, p962-964, "Eskimo-Aleut Languages".  Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 1973, Winfred P. Lehman,
 Eskimo-English Dictionary: Compiled from Erdman's Eskimo-German
Edition of 1864, 1925, Rev. Edmund J. Peck, D.D. (C.M.S. Missionary, Apostle to the Eskimos). We don't need no stinkin' ISBN!  West Greenlandic,1984, Michael Fortescue. ISBN 0-7099-1069-X  Eskimo Languages: Their Present Day Conditions, 1979,
Basse&Jensen, eds., p.94.
Stu "just the faqs, ma'am" Derby