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The specific claim that "Eskimos have X words for snow" is heavily disputed.

However, is the general concept that certain cultures' languages often have a large number of words for things that are important in that culture valid?

Examples of this I recently encountered include Lonely Planet's guidebook on Mongolia saying that Mongolian has a large number of words for horse skin colour compared to English (IIRC), and a claim on the BBC that Japanese has a larger vocabulary for apologizing than English (The many ways to say sorry in Japanese)

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    What you are engaged in in your culture has most words for it, there are hundreds of words for kinds of dogs in English, hundreds of terms for kinds of beer, hundreds of words for different diseases. So what? – Yellow Sky Aug 16 '15 at 1:05
  • Well, a sort of inverse of the statement seems likely to be true: if all the speakers of a language are unfamiliar with horses, they probably won't have any terms for horse skin color. Aside from that, though, different people have different vocabulary sizes, especially when it comes to areas of specialist knowledge. So it make more sense to me to differentiate between different speaking communities, which don't necessarily correspond to the group of speakers of a certain language... – brass tacks Aug 16 '15 at 1:25
  • For example: not all English speakers are programmers, and not all programmers are (fluent) English speakers. But, certain programming vocabulary is shared across the community of programmers. (True, it's mostly derived from English, but someone who only knows spoken English might not be able to figure out the specialized meaning of programming terms, and you don't have to understand spoken English to be able to remember specialized programming terms.) – brass tacks Aug 16 '15 at 1:28
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In fact, English has more "words for snow" than any Eskimo language has. Any speech group will differentiate terms for whatever categories they find useful. But "the number of words for X in a language" is no measure of anything at all; it's just mythology in action.

As far as Eskimo words for snow are concerned, there's a famous book by Geoff Pullum entitled The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. The title essay is available online, courtesy of the author.

In it you will see that every time you read a remark about how many Eskimo words there are for snow, you are dealing with an author who is clueless about both Eskimo and language, and who is willing to make up facts as they go along for the purpose of using a familiar old saw.

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There is a great book on that topic - Language : The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett.

He states, contrary to the Chomskyan notions, that languages' features are shaped almost exlusively by the culture of the language's users. He presents all this on a basis of the Piraha language, which he studied for quite a long time. The Piraha people are indigenous inhabitants of Amazonian rainforest, being isolated from influence of the "outside world". On that grounds their language has developed many features that are very peculiar ,not only compared to IE languages, but even the languages from its region and the whole world.

To answer to your question directly:

I think right now in linguistics there is no consensus on that topic, but this Everett's book would surely present you one of the approaches. It covers exactly the problem you stated : How strongly can the culture affect language and vice versa.

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  • Btw, Daniel Everett's findings are not very reliable. He changes his view on Piranha grammar, like, every 5 years. I suppose it's just his poor communication skills with the natives. Like that Kangaroo anecdote: "What is that?" -- "I don't know (Kangaroo)" – carsten Aug 17 '15 at 23:19

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