Life's Little Mysteries

Do Eskimos Really Have 400 Words for Snow?

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Anyone who suffers routine heavy snowfalls probably has a few choice words for snow. But do Eskimos really have 400 of them?

Most people have heard that factoid at one time or another (perhaps with varying but still large numbers), sometimes as an example suggesting that Eskimos are more in touch with nature . But is it true?

It seems like a straightforward question, yet it defies an accurate answer because it is misleading (and is the sort of question that leaves linguists gnashing their teeth). For example, just as there is more than one English language, there is more than one Eskimo language ; to answer the question you must specify which of several Eskimo-Aleut languages you are talking about.

One Eskimo language, Yup’ik, is said to have about fourteen words for snow, according to a dictionary by Steven A. Jacobson. That may sound like a lot, but in fact the average Eskimo knows just about as many words for snow as you do. English has many different words for snow, depending on context. Some words specify different types of weather, such as sleet, flurry, hail, snowstorm, and blizzard . Others describe the snow’s characteristics once it hits the ground, such as avalanche, drift, slush, hardpack, and powder.

But 400? I'd like to see that list.

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Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is