New twist in old trope about Eskimo words for snow

New study examines an old trope about the number of Eskimo words for snow (iStockphoto)

A new study examines an old trope about the number of Eskimo words for snow. (iStock photo)

That old trope about there being at least 50 Eskimo words for snow has a new twist.

Researchers at UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University have taken a fresh look at words for snow, taking on an urban legend referred to by some as “the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax.”

But instead of counting the words for snow used by Inuit, Yupik and other natives of the Arctic regions, as others have done, they looked at how people in warmer climates speak of snow and ice compared to their cold-weather counterparts.

“We found that languages from warm parts of the world are more likely to use the same word for snow and ice,” said Alexandra Carstensen, a doctoral student in psychology and co-author of the study published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The finding that people in warmer regions are less likely to distinguish between ice and snow indirectly supports a claim by anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911 that the words used to describe different types of snow in Arctic languages reflect the “chief interests of a people.”

By the same principle, people in warmer climates, where snow is less of a concern, are less likely to care as much about the difference between snow and ice, and so use one word to describe both, just as Hawaiians use the word hau for snow and ice.

To test that theory, researchers used multiple dictionaries and linguistic and meteorological data — as well as Google Translate and Twitter — to conduct an extensive search for words for snow and ice in nearly 300 diverse languages. They then linked those words to local climates and geography worldwide.

“We wanted to broaden the investigation past Eskimo languages in particular,” said study senior author Charles Kemp, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “The idea that languages reflect the needs of their speakers is general, and can be explored using data from all over the world.”

The study builds on the team’s previous research showing how language is shaped by our need to communicate precisely and efficiently.

“We think that terms for snow and ice reveal the same basic principle at work, modulated by local communicative need,” said study lead author Terry Regier, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.

A song by Kate Bush counts 50 real and imagined words for snow.