Inuktitut: Hundred of names for snow

by Alexis Ulrich

There is a common belief that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. Repeating this idea over and over does not turn it into a fact. Let’s debunk it.

The E word

Firstly, the Eskimo word is not very informative, as it is a blanket word that encompasses many arctic people, including Inuit, Yupik and Iñupiat to quote a few. Besides, a popular etymology links it to the Montagnais language where it was supposed to mean “eaters of raw meat”, which is quite pejorative. Actually, the Montagnais word is supposed to refer to the manner of lacing a snowshoe by modern linguists.

We are going to focus here on the Inuktitut language, or more precisely the Eastern Canadian Inuktitut (ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ). It is spoken in all areas north of the arctic tree line, including parts of the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec (in Nunavik), to some extent in northeastern Manitoba as well as the territory of Nunavut.

Some words for snow

In his book Ulirnaisugutiit: An Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Quebec, Labrador and Eastern Arctic Dialects (Laval University, 1985, []), the linguist and missionary Lucien Schneider lists many words referring to snow.

Among them, we have:

The agglutinative nature of Inuktitut

Inuktitut is an agglutinative language: new words can be created by adding prefixes and suffixes to the base radical. For instance, qanittaq (ᖃᓂᑦᑕᖅ) means “freshly fallen snow” where its root qanik (ᖃᓂᒃ) only means “snow falling”.
Likewise, from the word siku (ᓯᑯ, for ice in general), you can create sikuaq (ᓯᑯᐊᖅ, for “small ice”), which refers to the first layer of thin ice that forms on puddles in the fall, or sikuliaq (ᓯᑯᓕᐊᖅ, for “made ice”), the new ice appearing on the sea or on rock surfaces. From the word aniu (ᐊᓂᐅ, the snow for making water), we have aniugaviniq (ᐊᓂᐅᒐᕕᓂᖅ), a very hard, compressed and frozen snow.

In a sense, we can consider each of these forms as words, adding them to the number of different words for snow or ice, whereas in English a periphrase is needed to express the same idea. Does it mean Inuit people can better distinguish between different types of ice and snow thanks to their language?

From a language to a worldview

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, from the name of its supposed inventors Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, but really coined by Harry Hoijer, one of Sapir’s students, asks the question. While the linguistic relativity states that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world, it is now believed that if language influences thought, it is in much more limited ways.

So in the end, how many words for snow are there in Inuktitut? I hope you now have the feeling that this is a pure rethorical question, with no real answer. Does it really matter in the end?


The Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics from this article have been transliterated from Latin script via this Inuktitut transliteration tool.

Photo credit: Alexis Ulrich