That old cliché is a lie. It’s long been discredited, or at least floated back down to earth. For one, English has more than one word for snow—powder, flurry, pack, slush, hail, sleet, ice, black ice, and so on. And for another, the structure of the Eskimo-Aleut languages is more conducive to producing multiple “words” for snow.
Linguists call languages like the Eskimo polysynthetic. In synthetic languages, words are formed from smaller semantic parts. In polysynthetic languages words get composed out of many smaller parts, sometimes truly bonkers numbers of smaller parts. This is how the Eskimo–Aleut languages work: words are formed via polysynthetic suffixes.
But “words” doesn’t fully explain the weirdness of polysynthetic languages. The thing we call a “word” in English is a singular semantic and grammatical unit. Inuit languages can add as many suffixes (or postbases) as they want onto the end of a single root. Here’s an example from the dialect of Inuktitut spoken in the Canadian territory of Nunavut:
“I can’t hear very well.”
In English, we’d call that supposed word’s meaning a sentence, even though the word itself looks like what we’d call a word when transliterated.
Postbases can get pretty crazy. Here’s a word from the polysynthetic language Kalaallisut, the standard dialogue of the Greenlandic language, as found in A Comparative Manual of Affixes for the Inuit Dialects of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, by Michael Fortescue:
Fortescue breaks that, uh, word down into its nine postbases, some of which have specific grammatical force. The English translation appears immediately below Fortescue’s concordance:
“However, they will say that he is a great entertainer, but...(e.g. we know otherwise).”
Note how the whole word adds ideas onto its base, which has to do with “entertainment.”
The morphology of polysynthetic postbases is what makes Eskimo languages appear to have many more “words” for snow than they really do. The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum explains:
The Eskimoan language group uses an extraordinary system of multiple, recursively addable derivational suffixes for word formation called postbases. The list of snow-referring roots to stick them on isn't that long: qani- for a snowflake, api- for snow considered as stuff lying on the ground and covering things up, a root meaning “slush,” a root meaning “blizzard,” a root meaning “drift,” and a few others—very roughly the same number of roots as in English. Nonetheless, the number of distinct words you can derive from them is not 50, or 150, or 1500, or a million, but simply unbounded. Only stamina sets a limit.
The number of “words” for snow in Eskimo languages is a misnomer, a strange lost-in-translation sort of way of explaining that you can use “snow” and its variant terms in as many different sentences as you wish. And given a language that invites it, Inuit speakers often enjoy them “as novelties,” as the linguist Alana Johns explains in The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology.
We do something similar in English, too. In Atlanta, where I live, we’re still reeling from an embarrassing, Walking Dead-quality snowpocalypse from two years ago that left many stranded in their cars all weekend. And thus, the local weather service can be forgiven for alerting residents this week that “We are expecting a mainly cold rain event across this area.” Cold rain event is just a funny way to say “it’s totally not gonna snow, okay?”
Likewise, consider Rob’s report about a poll of blizzard names for this weekend’s storm by Capital Weather Gang. I guess if you really wanted to, you could claim that Candidates like “the Blizzard of 2016” and “Make Winter Great Again” (really) are “names for snow.” But you probably wouldn’t.
And neither would the Eskimos.