How Many Words for Snow in Eskimo? How Many Words for Sand in Arabic?

I’ve moved the Geology Word of the Week over to my geology blog Georneys so that I can reach more geologists and not annoy Skepchick readers with detailed geological ponderings. However, I thought I’d bring your attention to this week’s word becuase it has a sort of skeptical theme. In this post “N is for Nabkha,” I write about an Arabic word that is used by geologists to describe a particular sand feature.

You may not be interested in nabkhas, but you might be interested in my investigation of how many words there are in Arabic for sand. I am not going to re-post the whole article here because (1.) I am lazy / busy and (2.) Perhaps not all Skepchick readers are interested in my geological and etymological ramblings.

A popular urban legend is that the Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow. This doesn’t seem to be true, but I wondered– do the Arabs have an unusually large number of words for sand?

I researched this to the best of my somewhat-limited Arabic skills. My conclusion? Probably not. As far as I can tell, there is just one word (raml) in Arabic for sand. Read more here.


Avatar of Evelyn
Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.


  1. Avatar of arkady

    And yet in English:

    Cats and dogs

    Six words for liquid precipitation.

  2. Avatar of halden

    I think you might mean Inuit.

  3. Avatar of Evelyn

    I guess I mean the Eskimo-Aleut language family:

    My whole knowledge of “Eskimo” or “Inuit” language comes from wikipedia and google, so please enlighten me if I’ve made any horrible mistakes.

  4. Avatar of Eryops

    Taking ecology in university in Canada, we had a lab about snow ecology. We did learn a lot of words used by Inuit for snow, but if I recall (this is going on ~15 years ago), most of the terms referred to snow on the ground – i.e. many words for specific types of drifts, such as the hollow you get around the base of a tree. The degree of iciness or crustiness, etc.

    I think the point halden was trying to make is that in many circles, Eskimo is a derogatory term, especially to us Canucks.

  5. Avatar of Evelyn

    Gotcha. No offense intended!

  6. Avatar of davew

    I remember learning once that the Inuit do have a large number of words to describe ice because understanding the behavior of ice and ice flows is important.

  7. Avatar of Evelyn

    Here’s an interesting website:

  8. Avatar of fcmk

    However, there are quite a lot of words for snow in Finnish:

  9. Avatar of Aardvark

    Well, the Viennese have several dozen terms for coffee…

  10. Avatar of DiscordianStooge


    Not if she’s not talking about Inuit people.


    And the Yupik and Inupiat don’t much care for being called “Inuit” either. :)

  11. Avatar of DiscordianStooge

    I’d say we should have more words for snow in English. The big wet flakes that are heavy vs. tiny light flakes, vs. big light flakes, vs snow that has frozen over into a crust, etc. Don’t get me started on the difference between sleet and freezing rain, which is simple, yet somehow confuses a large segment of the population.

  12. Avatar of mrmisconception

    Humans also have hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of terms for sexual intercourse.

    You name what you think about I guess.

  13. Avatar of Owl Translator

    I guess I’m a lone voice here (so far), but growing up with geologist parents, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed your geological/lexicographical ramblings!

    Perhaps the reason there are in reality so few names for the Inuits’ snow and the Arabs’ sand is because it’s something so mundane and perhaps unpleasant to them. As in, “Aw shit, more fucking snow/sand.” And they don’t like to think about it, so they leave it at that. On the other hand, as @mrmisconception commented, humans have many, many words for sex, I’m guessing because, well, it’s pretty much the most fun thing you can do! So maybe it’s just what people like to think about vs. what they’d rather not.

    Hmm. I smell a research project coming on!

  14. Avatar of KeithM

    Regarding the Inuit and snow thing , it’s probably pointed out in many places, but since I live in the Canadian Arctic and work for Inuit, I’ll claim local knowledge.

    The way the Inuktitut and related dialects and languages work is that there’s no firm line between what in English would be a word, a phrase, or a sentence. Because of the extensive use of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes attached to a given root, a single word can have a very long, elaborate meaning by the time it’s put together.

    For instance, “aglu” is a seal breathing hole in the ice. “Agluhiuqtuq” means “He’s looking for seal holes in the ice.”

    So it’s not that Inuit differentiate snow more precisely than does an English speaker, it’s just that a polysynthetic language works differently from a more isolating one (as English is). Or, to modify Kathrin Passig’s example, an Inuktitut speaker could probably come up with a single word that means “snow that’s resting on a green aircraft wing”. Or, more pointedly, “green aircraft wing covered in snow”. Would someone claim that Inuktitut therefore has more words for aeronautics?

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