There is a story about language that is often repeated. It claims that Eskimos, the native people in northern Canada, have a very large number of words for snow, where English only has one word. Northern Canada is quite cold and has a lot of snow. People in northern Canada must talk more often about snow than people in England. Some people who study language claim that our environment has a great influence on our languages and this example is proof. There are many problems with this claim.
The first problem is that when people repeat the story the number of Eskimo words for snow increases. Each story teller wants a more interesting story, so they try to make it more exciting. Unless you check an Eskimo-English translation dictionary the stories are not reliable.
What do the story tellers mean by Eskimo anyway? Most of the native people in northern Canada would not call themselves Eskimo. There are several different tribes in Canada's north.
The second problem is that there are more than one language used by the people from northern Canada. If we add up the number of words for rice in each Chinese dialect, Korean, Burmese, Thai, Hindi, and so on we could say that Asians have many words for rice. English may only have one word, but we are then comparing many languages with one.
The third problem is that the Eskimo–Aleut languages use a lot of suffixes and compound words. Huge numbers of words can be created using a single root word. This is like saying that English has many words for powder, baby powder, talcum powder, gunpowder, washing powder etc…
The fourth problem is the assumption that English has only one word for snow. Hong Kong English might, because here snow is just something seen in a story book. Ask a Canadian how many words they know for snow...
Words for Snow & Ice in Canadian English
(n.) fake snow created by large machines at ski resorts
(n.) a lot of snow falling down a hill or mountain side (Note: These are dangerous.)
(n.) a thin layer of clear ice on an asphalt road (Note: Dangerous for driving)
(n.) a strong heavy snow storm with a lot of snow
(n.) a big crack in a glacier
(n.) a hard layer of snow on top of deeper softer snow, often formed by melting and refreezing in sunlight
Drift/ snow drift
(n.) a wind blown pile of snow
(n.) pushing a handful of snow in another's face and rubbing it in forcefully (Note: Often forbidden by primary school teachers)
(n.) snow that is at least a year old
(n.) a light snow storm with more wind than snow (Plural: flurries)
(n.) super-cooled liquid precipitation that becomes solid upon striking a surface (Note: a super-cooled liquid has a temperature far below freezing, but is still liquid.)
(n.) ice crystals formed on a surface by water vapour coming out of solution in cold air
(n.) a large permanent mountain of ice that slowly moves river-like across the ground
(adj.) related to a glacier
(n.) balls of ice falling from the sky (often found at the edge of certain weather systems)
(n.) a frost with large thin crystals
(n.) a large mass of ice floating on the water
(n.) snow and ice that remains on a mountain top the whole year
(n.) a statue carved from ice
(n.) massive glacial ice covering the land
(n.) a thick, floating mass of ice that forms where a glacier flows down to the sea
(n.) a relatively warm snow that packs easily into snow balls and snowmen
(n.) ground that is frozen all year
Powder snow/ powder
(n.) a colder snow that does not pack easily, but is good for skiing
(n.) frozen salty water floating on the sea
(n.) snow mixed with rain
(n.) partly melted snow on the ground
(n.) balls of hand rolled snow (a fight with those snowballs)
(n.) a day in which school has been cancelled due to excessive snowfall
(n.) a frozen water drop that forms an intricate pattern
(n.) a traditional child’s creation made with balls of rolled snow
(n.) a statue made of snow, other than the normal snowman
(n.) a brief, very intense snowstorm
(n.) the time when snow melts and winter ends
(v.) the melting of snow or ice
(n.) snow an animal, typically a dog, has urinated on
(n.) wind blown snow of such strength that it severely reduces visibility
Actually there are many more words related to how the different types of weather form, the effects of glaciers and so on. Then there are words related to how to adapt to the weather, including special clothing and tools. Maybe the theory is correct; our environment does have a great influence on our languages. The original example may be flawed, but Canadian English has many words for snow. Hong Kong English does not.
by John Larrysson
A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.