The first citation dealing with multiple Eskimo words for snow is found in the introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians, the 1911 work of linguist and anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas mentions that Eskimos have four separate words for snow: aput ("snow on the ground"), gana ("falling snow"), piqsirpoq ("drifting snow"), and qimuqsuq ("snowdrift"), where English has only one. It is, of course, inaccurate to say that speakers of the English language have only one word for snow. Boas' intent was to connect differences in culture with differences in language.
Benjamin Whorf's theory of linguistic relativism holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world. In a popular 1940 article on the subject, he referred to Eskimo languages having seven distinct words for snow. Later writers inflated the figure. By 1978, the number quoted had reached 50. On February 9, 1984 the New York Times gave the number as one hundred in an editorial.
The idea that Eskimos had hundreds of words for snow — indeed, hundreds of unique and fairly unrelated words — has given rise to the idea that Eskimos viewed snow very differently than people of other cultures. For example, when it snows, others see snow, but they could see any manifestation of their great and varied vocabulary. Vulgarized versions of Whorf's views hold not only that Eskimo speakers can choose among several snow words, but further, that they were unable to understand categorizing all seven (or however many) as "snow". To them, each word is supposedly a separate concept. Thus language is thought to impose a particular view of the world — not just for Eskimo languages, but for all groups. Whorf himself, a well-informed and respectful student of Native American cultures, held more sophisticated views than this caricature would suggest....
There is no one Eskimo language. A number of cultures are referred to as Eskimo, and a number of different languages are termed Eskimo-Aleut languages.
Like English, Eskimo languages have more than one word to describe snow. Yup'ik, for example, has been estimated to have around 24. This may seem impressive until one realizes that English has at least 40, including "berg", "frost", "glacier", "hail", "ice", "slush", "flurry", and "sleet".
Of course, it is perfectly possible that some Eskimo languages would have several extra words to describe snow, which is specifically the point of Boas's theory. This is because they deal with snow more than other cultures, just as artists have more words to describe the various details of their hobby. Where someone without artistic experience would simply identify a particular item as "paint", the artist calls it "oil paint", "acrylic paint", or "watercolor". This does not mean that these two individuals see two different things, nor does it mean that the artist would be confused by the idea that oil paint and acrylic paint are related.
The actual number of Eskimo words for snow is not hundreds — it is, in fact, limitless. This is because Eskimo languages (like many native North American languages) are polysynthetic; that is, a word can be composed of a large number of morphemes, such that a single word can express the equivalent of a sentence in a language like English. There is a system of derivational suffixes for word formation to which speakers can recursively add snow-referring roots. As in English, there is a handful of these snow-referring roots, words for "snowflake", "blizzard", "drift", and so on. This means that where an English speaker would describe what he or she is seeing as "soft, easily-packed snow", a speaker of an Eskimo language could describe the same thing in one word. And when the snow began to melt, she could change a few suffixes and describe, once again in one word, "soft, melting snow that is not easily-packed". If the snow became dirty, she could add a suffix and say, "soft, dirty, melting snow that is not easily-packed." All this in one word, where an English-speaker would need an entire phrase. And yet, the concept is the same in both languages....
There are two major errors in this myth. The first is that Eskimo speakers have more words for snow than English speakers do. In fact, they have about the same number, perhaps a few more and perhaps a few less depending on which Eskimo language one is focusing on. And as in English, these words are related to each other. Blizzards and flurries are two different types of snow, but they are snow nonetheless, and we recognize that. Speakers of Eskimo languages categorize snow in the same way.
The second error comes from a misconception of what should be considered "words". When it comes to describing snow in Eskimo languages, the words are limitless. And as in other polysynthetic languages, this rule is the same regardless of whether they are describing snow, cheese, trees, cars, or anything at all. This is because their language is structured differently than English. Because Eskimo is polysynthetic, it describes things in words of unlimited length.