Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Snow, by many other names

The theories of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied native Americans, began to surface in American college classrooms in the 1950s. Mr. Whorf wrote that because Eskimos had daily contact with snow in its various forms - wet, powdery, icy - they had developed a specialized vocabulary for the frozen water English-speakers simply called snow. Whorf never said how many words Eskimos had, but he implied that there were about seven.

Liberal-arts students in introductory psychology courses embraced the concept: One person's monotony was another's wide variety!

About these ads

So how many words do Eskimos and Aleuts have for the white stuff? A blizzard of theories continues. Some count as many as 100 words; others say that English actually has more. Part of it depends on which Eskimo dialect you're talking about.

There are two major Eskimo languages: Inuk (also called Inupiaq) and Yuk (also called Yupik). Dialects are spoken from Greenland to Siberia. The number of words for snow also depends on how you distinguish the words. Eskimo is polysynthetic; that is, a sentence can be expressed in a single word. To say "it is snowing" in the Inupiat dialect, you'd say "Quanniksuq." Does that count as one word for snow? Where English generally adds an "s" for a plural, Eskimo suffixes vary, and often change the stem word. Do you count all of them?

According to Lorena Williams, an instructor at the University of Fairbanks in Alaska, the North Slope Inupiaq dialect has only two verbs for snow. But there are several noun forms to describe snow and ice.

Here are some of them: qannik snowflake kaniq frost apun snow cover on the ground qinu broken chunks of slush ice silliq hard, crusty snow natigviksuq 'snow is drifting along the ground' auniq 'rotten' ice ivuniq ice-pressure ridge pukak sugar snow (granular)

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.