The oscar-winning movie Arrival has prompted some new interest the the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language constrains or enables certain abstract concepts. The idea that an alien language can rewire the brain's way of thinking about time is central to the movie.

One of the ideas in the hypothesis is that some languages enable much more nuanced discussion on a topic than other as they contain more words related to the idea. For example, Wikipedia records that:

One of Whorf's examples was the supposedly large number of words for 'snow' in the Inuit language

This appears to be the origin of a very widely repeated meme that eskimos (the Inuit at least) have hundreds of words for one of the commonest ingredients of their environment.

But the idea is controversial. Is it true?

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    There is an answer to this on English SE : english.stackexchange.com/questions/4769/… – gilleain Feb 27 '17 at 15:44
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    @gilleain There are lots of answers to it in many places. I was actually surprised not to find one on skeptics.SE as this would be a good place for a correctly referenced and definitive answer given how commonly the idea is referenced in dodgy arguments. – matt_black Feb 27 '17 at 15:47
  • BTW, Eskimo is considered offensive by some: npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/04/24/475129558/… – ventsyv Mar 1 '17 at 0:00
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    BTW further, I want to emphasize the some in @ventsyv's comment. In Alaska, many people in the northern, coastal areas self-identify as Eskimos. However, the Aleut (think Aleutian Island chain) are NOT Eskimos and being misidentified as one can certainly cause ruffled feathers. – Jolenealaska Oct 25 '17 at 16:01

It depends on how you define "snow", "word", and "eskimo".

But this Washington Post article argues - based on this paper from 2010 - that there are a great number of words for snow, even when considering a narrow definition of "word":

Krupnik and others charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and concluded that they indeed have many more words for snow than English does.

Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

For a general overview over the topic, see also this wikipedia article on Eskimo words for snow.

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    Interestingly that Wiki article is less critical on the "many words for snow" idea than the Wiki on Linguistic Relativity where Sapir-Whorf is discussed critically. – matt_black Feb 27 '17 at 15:54
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    Don't know about the Inuit languages, but the dialect of English spoken by skiers &c surely approaches 40 words. E.g. boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=282165 So it shouldn't be at all surprising if this claim is true. – jamesqf Feb 27 '17 at 18:56
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    One could come up with example words to prove nearly anything. I could claim that English-speaking people are very violent because they have so many words for weapons - sword, knife, dagger, scimitar, epee, longsword, broadsword, claymore, warhammer, mace, pistol, revolver, handgun, automatic, long gun, rifle, musket, shotgun, elephant gun, machine gun, submachine gun, assault rifle, railgun, taser, spear, quarterstaff, bow, crossbow, missile, bomb, ICBM, tactical nuke, EMP generator, brass knuckles, blow gun, dart gun, catapult, trebuchet, mustard gas, sarin, axe, whip, and many more. – Robert Columbia Feb 27 '17 at 22:20
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    Can you prove that english speakers don't have 40 words for snow? that is to say depending on how lenient they were on definitions for snow we have quite a few words that could be synonyms for snow as well. – dsollen Mar 3 '17 at 15:52
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    snow, slush, sleet, slurry ... – kando Oct 30 '17 at 17:20

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