Mark Liberman quotes this sentence (from a review of a couple of horse books), with its whiff of fragrant equine snowclones: “The Blackfoot of the Plains had more than 100 words for the colours of horses, the Kazaks of central Asia 62 for bay shades alone. These are not just numerical curiosities from old horse societies, but signs of a human watchfulness and a deep connectedness to the natural world that was the norm, and is now rare.” Mark says “If you know enough Blackfoot or Kazak to evaluate these claims, or can find a relevant reference, let me know.” I too am curious; anybody know where on the continuum between “silly” and “overstated” this claim falls?


  1. Actually, this one wouldn’t surprise me if it were true– especially the Blackfoot one. I have a big book about the genetics of horse color, and there really are tons of specialized names even in English. In my experience the vast majority aren’t typically used in equestrian circles anymore, but there are a LOT out there. When I go back to my folks’ house in a couple weeks, I’ll dig the book out and see how many there are. I’m betting over a hundred.

  2. Or is it like the “Eskimo have (X number) of words for ‘snow”? False, but true, but a bit beside the point?

  3. Hey now! Finally a topic to which I can add some value! This has to be true. I have horses and live in horse country. (I mention this only because it means that all my neighbors have horses too… so I see them.) Bridget is absolutely correct. In English, there are numerous color names… Bay, Roan, Dun, Chestnut, White, Black, Cremello and on and on.
    Even this nameing structure treats things like “bay” as a color. Bay is NOT a single color. “Bay” describes an almost infinate range of colors that can best be decribed as “Any kind of Brown horse with a Black Mane, Tail, Etc.” Light brown. Dark brown. Reddish brown. Tan. Mahogany. Doesn’t matter. Brown horse with Black Points is a Bay. And bays can also be Roans – the Roan gene is demonstrated by interspersed white hairs. Roans can be anything too: a Roan Dun. Grey horses can be dapled, fleabitten, steel-grey, rose-grey. And we aren’t even talking about colored breeds (Pintos, Paints, Vanners, Appaloosa). How are these described?
    I can think fifty combos off the top of my head… probably more.
    And that’s just for the color of the horse. And then there are facial markings (Star, Snip, Blaze, Muzzle, Half Muzzle, Lip, etc). And then there are leg markings “socks/stockings/pasterns/etc.” And then there are unique marking that are unexpected.
    Just because we distinguish bewteen color and markings doesn’t mean that everyone does. The markings are almost more telling.
    I would expect a serious horse culture to come up with a naming system that has greater specificity. I’m surprised that the number is THAT LOW.

  4. Here’s a simple little horse color site I just found with plenty of photos. A good site.

  5. Siganus Sutor says

    Where does the word “appaloosa” come from ? Any idea ?

  6. Peter Austin says

    David Harrison has written a nice account of Tuvan yak naming conventions in a paper called ‘Ethnographically informed language documentation’ published in “Language Documentation and Description Volem 3” (2005) available from
    There is a hierarchy of terminology for head markings, body patterns and body colours that is more suggestive of complexity than mere lists of lexical items for colour.
    The Sasaks of Lombok, Indonesia, have a complex system of describing water buffalo that includes both body colour and patterns, as well as shape and directions of horns.

  7. Gee, this strikes me as a variation on the “Inuit have one hundred words for snow” chestnut.

  8. I suppose its silliness depends on what you mean by “word for” colors: do mahogany bay, blood bay, washy bay, etc., count as “words for bay”? How about “mahogany bay with wild white”? Or “few-spot blue roan leopard”? We’ve got hundreds of terms for horse colors, but they aren’t individual uniquely-rooted words.
    Appaloosa comes from Palouse River valley.

  9. Re: Blackfeet vocabulary: I can think of one person to ask. Ms.Scriver lives on reservation and used to teach there for many years; she might answer your question with authority.

  10. The Sasaks of Lombok, Indonesia, have a complex system of describing water buffalo that includes both body colour and patterns, as well as shape and directions of horns. – Posted by Peter Austin

    Exactly. Do these Blackfoot and Kazak “names for colors” include names for markings? If so, the large number is un-remarkable. Further, are these Blackfoot and Kazak “names for colors” really “names for descriptions” (like the shape and direction of horns for water buffalo)? If so, consider the various SIZES and SHAPES of horses – the big nostrils of an ARAB, the whole WET HORSE-DRY HORSE descriptive, draught horses versus saddlebreeds, the distinctive rounded Quarterhorse rump and so on. If the Blackfoot and Kazak systems are actually “ways of describing” a horse, the number is low.
    I love horses. LanguageHat, can you create a category of horse blogs. H

  11. I too am a horsey person. There are tons of terms in English for horse colors.
    I recently traveled to southern Siberia (Republic of Altai) was given the gift of a really nifty book on horses, color, markings, horsemanship, training, and equipment terminology. It is written in Russian, but includes glosses for Tuvan, Mongolian, Kazakh, and a zillion other regional languages for terms, including colors.
    In my reading of the book, it looks like the Tuvan color names for horses follow a similarly detailed system, comparable to Russian and English. I would guess that Kazakh is along the same lines, especially as nomad/horse culture goes. But that’s just my guess.
    The book is called “Horse of the Nomads – Traditional Practice of the Tuvans”, by Vyacheslav Darzha, published in Kyzyl in 2003.
    It was interesting to see, in this book, that they too have appaloosa coloring in the region. In my recollection, appaloosa is a color breed, and the word comes from the Palouse River in the northwest. Appaloosas were bred there by the Nez Perce. Naturally occurring color pattern, I think, but the Nez Perce selected for it in their herds.
    My favorite horse color term is “flea-bitten grey” to describe a horse with grey/black skin, white base color and a ton of black “bites” all over.

  12. I have a flea-bitten grey Hanoverian mare at whom I am looking right now. What color is that? Exactly! Jen, you are right on.

  13. Interesting that the Blackfoot came up with so many terms in such a short time. Then again, think of all the automotive terms we have invented in almost no time.

  14. Yes of course… automotive terms, space terms… look at how political terms proliferate and then become obsolete (but let’s no go there please).
    By the way,the snowclone article is being considered for delition on Wikipedia. whatever.

  15. xiaolongnu says

    I realize that E.E. Evans-Prichard is not everyone’s definition of unproblematic, but the last chapter of his famous monograph on the Nuer of the Sudan includes a marvellous study of the Nuer taxonomy of cattle coloration and markings, which is as far as I know not considered objectionable work. It’s really interesting stuff.

  16. I was going to mention the Nuer.
    The Eskimos don’t really need that many words for snow, but because horses are prestige items with religious significance in many societies, the horse culture do need all those words for horses and their colors and breeds.
    Husbandry seems to bring this kind of distinction-making. There are at least this many words for “castrated X”: oxen steer wether capon hog gelding. I was even told once that farmers have different words for diarrhea (scours is the only one I remember) depending on the species, but someone may have been joking.

  17. The Modesto Kid says

    Hey can any of you horse people evaluate the claim that in the folk song “Stewball was a Racehorse”, “Stewball” is a corruption of “skewbald”, a color pattern of horses?

  18. In Dwelly’s Gaelic Dictionary one can see that the Highland Scots had many words describing the different ways of clipping an animal’s ear.
    This was used to denote ownership in the same way that brands were used in the American Southwest in the days of range cattle.

  19. I’m impressed with County Clerk’s response up there– goes to show that it’s not necessarily an inherent aspect of one particular language that there’ll be lots of words for something. Would Kazakhs living in the city know such terms, just like these English horse words are new to me?
    I guess for some reason the topic of snow always gets me, because I’ve always lived in northern regions where there is a lot of snow, and well, we here do notice the many variations in snow and can describe it just as well as anyone speaking Inuit or Sámi could manage, its just that we have different ways of doing it. Someone from a non-snowy region might just not realize snow can be crusted over on the top, though they’d have the words to describe it. It just so happens that some languages have single words for all this that seem to be unrelated, i.e. North Sámi ritmi ‘crusted snow’, vs. cuoŋo ‘crusted snowdrift’.
    On the Sámi topic though, they’ve also got quite the list for reindeer terms. Some of them are contained in this here PDF. There’s even a little example which shows the terms combined to describe one reindeer in particular. Obviously, we have the ability to describe the same things in English, but what’s impressive about all these terms, horse or reindeer, is something as short as any other word for color used to describe something that can be expanded into many words (just like ‘bay’ up there).

  20. In addition to dozens of Eskimo words for snow and scores of colors for horses we now have:The New Yorker, about three quarters down the page

    Quote:while speakers of Tzeltal, in Mexico, have more than four hundred words describing such vocal traits as “talking very slowly, as if sad,”

  21. Ryan, I’m a Kazakh who grew up in the city (Alma-Ata, to be precise), and I can tell you that not only do I not know all the Kazakh terms for horse colors, but, like many of my peers, I don’t actually know any Kazakh. For better or worse, Russian is the primary language spoken in urban areas in Kazakhstan, although this may change in the future.
    And before you ask, I know only four or five most basic terms for horse colors in Russian, too.

  22. The book is called “Horse of the Nomads – Traditional Practice of the Tuvans”, by Vyacheslav Darzha, published in Kyzyl in 2003.

    Curious about this, I did some googling and discovered that the book is «Лошадь в традиционной практике тувинцев-кочевников» in the original, and that Darzha “would have been 56” on Jan. 23, 2015, so he died young. That first link has a selection of Tuvan terms from the book:

    кыр – чалую, ак-кыр – светло-чалую, кызыл-кыр – красно-чалую, көк-кыр – сиво-чалую, сарыг-кыр – солово-чалую; кыр-ала – чалую с пежинами, кыр-шокар – чало-пеструю, кыр-шилги – чало-рыжую.

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