Inuit lives in the snow, so it's not as strange as they have 200 words for snow. But is that correct?
In numerous books and TV programs it is claimed that Inuit has 23 to 200 words for snow. But that is due to a misunderstanding that was brought to the world in 1911 by the anthropologist Frans Boaz and then passed on by journalists, amateur scientists and novelists, who grossly exaggerated the word supply of the Inuit.
In the mid-1980s, American anthropologist Laura Martin of Cleveland State University already discovered how this error ever occurred. Yet the myth has been staged numerous times in different situations. The story is apparently just more fun than the reality.
According to Laura Martin, it started when Franz Boas wrote an introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians. He claimed that the language of the Inuit had four basic words for snow. The amateur linguist Benjamin Whorf increased that number to seven in an article from 1940. Since then the number has only increased; authors copied it from each other and added a few.
It seems logical that Inuit have many words for snow, but it is not necessary. The vast majority of languages have only one basic word. For nuances, compositions are made such as porridge snow and powder snow, or an adjective is used, such as in wet snow.
The language, the Inuit, is also structured that way. Everything can be expressed with additions. For example, in West Greenland there are only two basic words for snow: qanik, or snow in the sky, and aput, snow on the ground.
Reindeer boost word stock
Greenland is similar to other languages, but Sami has the record 'words for snow' according to language researcher Ole Henrik Magga of the Sami university in Norway.
The Samen especially need those words to say whether reindeer can, for example, sink into the snow or find food underneath. Many other words describe how the snow reacts to wind and weather.