And now for something completely different.

Have you heard that Eskimos have about a hundred different words for snow? You did? Well, it was a rhetorical question really. I knew you heard about it. If you live in an English speaking country, you probably heard this “fact” repeated to you about few hundred times by now. But it is not a fact. It is a meme. One that spreads far and wide because we all find it somewhat interesting. It is a cool linguistic factoid which, is unfortunately entirely made up.

Firstly, there is no single Eskimo language. The who we usually lump together as Eskimos actually belong to bunch of different ethnic groups and they speak a number of different languages and dialects. We refer to these as the Eskimo Aleut family of languages. Secondly, none of these languages has an unusual number of words for snow. They have about as many snow-related words as English.

You should have known that too, because this is where the term snowclone was derived from. But in case you didn’t (shame on you) then I hope I ruined a perfectly neat factoid for you. As a form of apology, I will supply you with a real, albeit slightly less impressive one.

Here it goes: Polish people have two distinct and equivalent names for potatoes: ziemniak and kartofel. Yes, these words do not even look alike, but they mean the exact same thing. They are not names for different types of potatoes, or different states of a potato (as in whole, baked, mashed, etc). They are completely interchangeable and have no difference in meaning.

These are not regional names either. This is not a soda and pop situation. Actually, let me explain this for non American readers: depending on which part of US you grew up in, you will refer to carbonated beverages either as soda or as pop. For example, I live in NJ and here you say soda. When someone asks you for pop you send them to the internet to download some mp3’s. In the past you sent them to a local record store, but we no longer have any of these, don’t we?

Anyways, the ziemiak/kartofel thing is nothing like the soda/pop situation. Both words are widely used across the entire nation. In fact, most people don’t even have a personal preference. I for example pick my potato word based on some neural switch magic somewhere deep inside my brain. Sometimes one comes out rather than the other, and I couldn’t tell you why.

Both words have slightly different etymology. The root word of Ziemniak is ziemia, which means ground. So the name literally means a thing in the ground, which makes sense. Kartofel on the other hand is borrowed from the German word for potato which is Kartoffel. As you can see we optimized the word for efficiency by dropping a redundant F but other than that, we kept it almost identical. Some people say that using ziemniak is more patriotic because it does not contain a foreign root, but most don’t care either way.

So yeah, we have two words for potato. Actually we have more than that. There is about a dozen names for this vegetable but they are mostly regional dialects: people from Poznań call it pyra, górale from eastern Podhale call it grula, their neighbors from western Podhale say rzepa and those who speak the Kaszubski dialect usually say bulwa. But ziemiak and kartofel are universal, interchangeable and used everywhere.

So there, this is your linguistic factoid of the day. And if this is not enough for ruining your eskimo snowclone story, let me throw in another one for a good measure:

Most modern languages use similar words to denote bicycle. It is bicicletta in Italian, bicicleta in Spanish, bicyclette in French, bicicleta in Austrian, bicikl in Croatian, bicicletã in Romanian, bicykel in Slovak, cykel in Swedish, bisiklet in Turkish, cykel in Dannish, and etc… Even in Esperanto, it is biciklo.

How do you say bicycle in Polish?


No, seriously. If you say bicykl which would be the correct polonized version of the same root word that everyone else uses, most Poles will imagine the old timey, retro bike. You know, the one with a huge wheel in front and tiny little one in the back. If you want to talk about actual modern bicycles however, you need to use the word rower.

How the hell did we get rower out of bicycle? Well, we didn’t. It is one of these cases where people start using a brand name instead of the generic term, and it sort of stays that way. For example: “can you pick up some kleenex?” (instead of tissues) or “can you xerox this for me” (instead of copy). This exact process took place when British company Rover started selling their bikes in Poland. Rover has not produced any bicycles in many decades, but their brand were apparently so iconic that the company name became a generic term for a bicycle. We just swapped V for a W because V is one of those “borrowed” letters that was never actually part of Polish alphabet and which only shows up in foreign words, or words that are made to sound foreign.

Anyways, this was your linguistic lesson of the day. And with this, my blog is officially completely off the rails. I just blogged about potatoes, bicycles and Eskimo words for snow. Wow… I don’t really have an official topic here, but this post is widely diverging from my usual topic range. I hope you guys don’t mind. I’m filing this under “random stuff” because that’s what it is.

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13 Responses to And now for something completely different.

  1. btw: we germans have different words for potato too, the noted “Kartoffel” is just one of them, pretty common (at least where i am from) are more localized terms like “erdappel” (pretty obvious combination of erde – earth/ground, and apfel – apple, so it’s an apple growing underground). Even better: in the netherlands the term “Aardappel” is the main one.

    Then again we germans are allready know for our strange use of language, combining words to huge constructions like “Schadenfreude”, “Kindergarten” or “Kraftfahrzeugsbeulenausbesserungsmöglichkeit”(^^). We even disuse foreign words and call our mobile phones “Handy” and similar.
    like in: bag-and-head-to-the-public-viewing/

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  2. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I waited for you to get your point across, but you never did :( Explain yourself! :D

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  3. Gui13 FRANCE Google Chrome Linux says:

    Well, we have the same thing in French: saying bicyclette will make your friend think you ride some kind of old school bike (notice that I use bike the same way you did: to denote a bicycle, but in a more “recent” manner).
    The commonly-used word for bike in french is “vélo“, from the ancient word “vélocipède“, ethymologically linked to the french equivalent of “velocity” (guess where “velociraptor” came from…).

    Anyway, my point is: you will find that many many languages have some kind of local alternative for plenty of words, often related to the proximity of the boundary to another country (Alsace-Lorraine in France have massive amount of german in their words, for instance, to denote common words like “knob” or “mosquito”, etc…).

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  4. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    And…what’s really cool…is there no such things as “Eskimos” in Canada (and Greenland) anymore :) They call themselves “Inuit”. Ain’t language fun.

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  5. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Japanese for bicycle is ‘jitensha’. So…yeah. That happened.

    Also, the all-seeing, all-knowing Cecil Adams discusses the whole Eskimo words for snow thing (and a reprise later on).

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  6. kuzux TURKEY Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    @ Gui13:
    The exact opposite situation exists in turkish. “Velespit” for the old kind of bike, and “Bisiklet” for the modern one.
    Also, in many cases, there are three words that have the same meaning, but of different etymology(arabic,persian,old turkic or french), like “Absürt”(french), “Abes”(arabic), and “Saçma”(Turkish, literally “thrown around”) all mean absurd.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Interesting. In Polish the cell phone is komurka which incidentally is also the word we use for a biological cell. Not prison cell though – that’s cela więzienna.

    Funny thing is that Polish tends to absorb foreign words quite readily. Words like “hot dogi, hamburgery, czipsy (chips) are common place. Lately I’ve been hearing Polish TV presenters using phrase w realu when they mean IRL because Polish does not have an equivalent idiom but it drives me absolutely nuts. IMHO it sounds retarded.

    @ Liudvikas:

    Random linguistic factoid dump. I really didn’t have any point. I just sat down and started typing. The rest is just verbal diarrhea. Sorry. :(

    @ Steve:

    Yep, that too!

    @ Gui13:

    Interesting. What do you use for motor bikes? In Polish it is coincidentally motocykl (there is that cycle root) or motor.

    Amateur cyclist is rowerzysta but a professional cyclist (one who participates in bicycle races) is kolaż (derived from koło which is wheel – so roughly you could translate it as “wheeler”).

    @ Nathan:

    Heh! I’m not surprised though. I would expect there to be a disconnect between the closely related Western European languages, and Asian languages just because of the geographical distances and their impact in the times when these languages were just forming.

    @ jambarama:

    Yeah, I completely forgot about that one. I’ve seen it on reddit a few times. :) I can’t remember the etymology of the word Pinaple. How the hell did we come up with that?

    @ kuzux:

    Interesting. Polish has few dozen curse words equivalent to English word “fuck” and there is no clear preference. And I’m not talking about euphemisms here – those are actual curse words that you would get bleeped out on TV if Poles were as prudish as Americans (we are not, cursing on Polish TV is ok if it is after hours). In fact, it is one of the areas where people can get very inventive.

    In fact “fuck” is not the top curse-word. The top one is kurwa which stands for prostitute which is as universal as “fuck” (can be used as non, verb, adjective, punctuation, etc..). But I’m getting off topic here.

    Polish actually has a lot of situations where the opposite of you describe is true – same word being re-used in drastically different contexts.

    For example the word zamek can mean one of the following:

    – a castle
    – a door lock
    – a zipper (like in your jacket)

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  8. xani FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think the word Pineapple must be derived from the fact that the fruit looks a little like a pine cone. Albeit large and yellow.

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  9. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    About the “Eskimos have about a hundred different words for snow”. Does this saying have to be interpreted so literally? I have always understood it more to mean that Eskimos are aware of many more different types of snow, snow conditions, etc., and that they are much more capable of expressing these in language than people less concerned with snow. I would expect this to be true. Just as computer programmers in a sense have “a hundred different words for software crashes” even though they are not single unique words as such, e.g., buffer overflow, out of stack, core dump, crash to desktop, blue screen of death, etc.

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  10. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Sorry for replying to myself, but to sort the question of Eskimos and snow out for real, someone should do the xkcd man-women color test:
    but, instead of colors, use different photos of snowy landscapes and bin the results in Eskimos vs. non-Eskimos.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Tino:

    No, I don’t think it’s supposed to be taken literally. I think it is supposed to be taken just the way you described it. And apparently it is not true. Inuit languages don’t actually seem to have an exceptional number of words and idioms relating to snow. It follows that they are not that particularly interested in snow. It’s part of their life, but they don’t have some special relationship with it.

    Programmers have hundreds of names for crashes because it is their profession. We need these names because they help us differentiate between all different types of crashes. It’s part of our job to name and define these things. There is just a weather phenomenon, and so there is no need to study it in such depth. It’s just something you deal with.

    Of course IANAE so I might be wrong here.

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  12. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Luke Maciak wrote:

    Inuit languages don’t actually seem to have an exceptional number of words and idioms relating to snow. It follows that they are not that particularly interested in snow. It’s part of their life, but they don’t have some special relationship with it.

    But…, my point was precisely that you cannot base that conclusion on just the premise that Eskimo languages do not have an exceptional number of words and idioms relating to snow. I mean, Eskimos could be better at communicating about snow without unique words. We rarely use e.g. ‘soft snow’ or ‘semi-soft snow’ to describe the weather, but we still have the words to express that in our language, so if you are just counting word-for-word it wouldn’t count. The crucial question is how often we use expressions like this vs. how often Eskimos do.

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