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Inuit Words for Snow

Last Modified On: April 15, 2005

The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax is anthropology's contribution to urban legends. It apparently started in 1911 when anthropologist Franz Boaz casually mentioned that the Inuit—he called them "Eskimos," using the derogatory term of a tribe to the south of them for eaters of raw meat—had four different words for snow. With each succeeding reference in textbooks and the popular press the number grew to sometimes as many as 400 words.

In fact, "Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English," according to linguist Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct. "Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen."


Here is my exchange of correspondence with Professor Pinker on the subject:

Steve,

Thank you so much for your book, The Language Instinct. It's what I am always looking for—something stimulating and a good read at the same time. I'm glad that every time I went to the library it was checked out so when I found the HarperPerennial edition of it at a bookstore recently I snatched it up.

I especially love to read about hoaxes, or what I usually call urban myths. So when I read your debunking of the 400 or so Eskimo words for snow I was delighted.

Imagine my surprise when I read one of the better on-line ezines, Word, the next day and found the article "The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow" by someone named Phil James. I attach the text of the article. What do you think about it? Is this just a continuation of the hoax?

Professor Pinker replied:

Dear Rick,

Thanks for sending the list—it's hilarious....it is a work of a witty satirist. Indeed, it makes a serious point—some of the entries on the serious lists of Eskimo snow words are as dubious as "wa-ter" meaning melted snow "tlan-na-na" for oldie snow on the radio.

Best,
Steve Pinker


The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow

by Phil James


tlapa           powder snow
tlacringit      snow that is crusted on the surface
kayi            drifting snow
tlapat          still snow
klin            remembered snow
naklin          forgotten snow
tlamo           snow that falls in large wet flakes
tlatim          snow that falls in small flakes
tlaslo          snow that falls slowly
tlapinti        snow that falls quickly
kripya          snow that has melted and refrozen
tliyel          snow that has been marked by wolves
tliyelin        snow that has been marked by Eskimos
blotla          blowing snow
pactla          snow that has been packed down
hiryla          snow in beards
wa-ter          melted snow
tlayinq         snow mixed with mud
quinaya         snow mixed with Husky shit
quinyaya        snow mixed with the shit of a lead dog
slimtla         snow that is crusted on top but soft underneath
kriplyana       snow that looks blue in the early morning
puntla          a mouthful of snow because you fibbed
allatla         baked snow
fritla          fried snow
gristla         deep fried snow
MacTla          snow burgers
jatla           snow between your fingers or toes, or in groin-folds
dinliltla       little balls of snow that cling to Husky fur
sulitlana       green snow
mentlana        pink snow
tidtla          snow used for cleaning
ertla           snow used by Eskimo teenagers for exquisite erotic rituals
kriyantli       snow bricks
hahatla         small packages of snow given as gag gifts
semtla          partially melted snow
ontla           snow on objects
intla           snow that has drifted indoors
shlim           slush
warintla        snow used to make Eskimo daiquiris
mextla          snow used to make Eskimo Margaritas
penstla         the idea of snow
mortla          snow mounded on dead bodies
ylaipi          tomorrow's snow
nylaipin        the snows of yesteryear ("neiges d'antan")
pritla          our children's snow
nootlin         snow that doesn't stick
rotlana         quickly accumulating snow
skriniya        snow that never reaches the ground
bluwid          snow that's shaken down from objects in the wind
tlanid          snow that's shaken down and then mixes with sky-falling snow
ever-tla        a spirit made from mashed fermented snow,
		popular among Eskimo men
talini          snow angels
priyakli        snow that looks like it's falling upward
chiup           snow that makes halos
blontla         snow that's shaken off in the mudroom
tlalman         snow sold to German tourists
tlalam          snow sold to American tourists
tlanip          snow sold to Japanese tourists
protla          snow packed around caribou meat
attla           snow that as it falls seems to create nice pictures
		in the air
sotla           snow sparkling with sunlight
tlun            snow sparkling with moonlight
astrila         snow sparkling with starlight
clim            snow sparkling with flashlight or headlight
tlapi           summer snow
krikaya         snow mixed with breath
ashtla          expected snow that's wagered on (depth, size of flakes)
huantla         special snow rolled into "snow reefers" and smoked
		by wild Eskimo youth
tla-na-na       snow mixed with the sound of old rock and roll
		from a portable radio
depptla         a small snowball, preserved in Lucite, that had been handled
		by Johnny Depp
trinkyi         first snow of the year
tronkyin        last snow of the year
shiya           snow at dawn
katiyana        night snow
tlinro          snow vapor
nyik            snow with flakes of widely varying size
ragnitla        two snowfalls at once, creating moire patterns
akitla          snow falling on water
privtla         snow melting in the spring rain
chahatlin       snow that makes a sizzling sound as it falls on water
hootlin         snow that makes a hissing sound as the
		individual flakes brush
geltla          snow dollars
briktla         good building snow
striktla        snow that's no good for building
erolinyat       snow drifts containing the imprint of crazy lovers
chachat         swirling snow that drives you nuts
krotla          snow that blinds you
tlarin          snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages
		Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time
motla           snow in the mouth
sotla           snow in the south
maxtla          snow that hides the whole village
tlayopi         snow drifts you fall into and die
truyi           avalanche of snow
tlapripta       snow that burns your scalp and eyelids
carpitla        snow glazed with ice
tla             ordinary snow

The last time I looked the Phil James satire was no longer on-line. I found it years ago at http://www.word.com/gigo/eskimo/


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