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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Eskimo Words For Snow

Q: Are there really hundreds of different Eskimo words for snow?

A: Yes, but only because there are hundreds of different Eskimo words about anything. Eskimo languages, like Inuktitut and Yup'ik, are polysynthetic. That means that Inuit people can combine many different vocabulary roots to make a single, long word with a complex meaning. Some English words have a suffix which changes the meaning of the word, such as "princess" (meaning "female prince") or "understandable" (meaning "able to be understood.") But Eskimo words can have several suffixes in a row, such as the Inupiaq word sivuniqsilluatallakigaptauq, which means "I also am able to understand it very well," or iglulluataniqłuich, which means "big, beautiful houses." Similarly, there are many long words related to snow in the Eskimo languages, such as the Inupiaq word qanniklluataniqłuich, "big beautiful snowflakes," or the Inuttitut word qannitaijarirpan, "he has finished brushing the falling snow off something."

Since there are hundreds of these suffixes in Eskimo languages, the number of Eskimo words about snow is limited only by the imagination of Eskimo language speakers. It's even possible to invent a strange new Eskimo snow word right now, such as qannikuqtuq, "he's turning into a snowflake." But that's true of any word root in Inuktitut, not just snow. You could just as truthfully say there are hundreds of different Eskimo words for fingernails!

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