Many Words for Snow?

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

People who live in the far north in places like these Inuit people who live in Cape Dorset, Canada, have many words to describe snow and ice. One reason why Inuit and Yupik people have so many words for snow and ice are related to surviving in a harsh Arctic environment.

People who live in the far north, such as these Inuit who live in Cape Dorset, Canada, have many words to describe snow and ice.

If you ask people what they picture when they hear the word winter, the word snow is likely to be a common answer. Like rain, snow is a type of precipitation. However, while rain falls as liquid water, snow falls as ice crystals. If you live in Buffalo, New York, you can expect about eight feet of snow to fall over the course of an average winter.

In general, the farther north you travel in North America, the more snow you can expect to see. For the Inuit and Yupik people who live in the far north of the U.S. state of Alaska or in the country of Canada, snow is not limited to winter. As a result, a common belief spread that the Inuit and Yupik have many words for snow.

For many years, linguists—people who study languages—questioned whether this was really true. Some said the idea that there are many words for snow in the far north was just an urban legend. An urban legend is a story about something unusual that many people believe is true, but is really false. For example, for many years some people were convinced that alligators lived in the sewers of New York City, although this isn’t true. Some linguists have called this idea that there are many words for snow in the north the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Is this a hoax, or is it true? Let’s find out.

Boas’s Trip North

First, we need to look at where this idea came from. It started with Franz Boas. Boas was an anthropologist who went to northern Canada to study Eskimos. Eskimo is an English word that was used to describe two distinct groups of indigenous people, the Inuit and the Yupik. Today, it is more common to refer to indigenous people of the far north by their actual culture of origin.

In the 1880s, Boaz traveled to frozen Baffin Island in northern Canada. Boaz wanted to learn all that he could about the people who lived there. He studied their folklore, ate their foods, and participated in their day-to-day activities. “I am now truly like an Eskimo,” Boas wrote in a letter to his fiancée. “I scarcely eat any European foodstuffs any longer but am living entirely on seal meat.”

Boas was especially interested in the languages northern people spoke. They used the word aqilokoq to mean “softly falling snow.” Another word, piegnartoq, instead described snow that was “good for driving a sled over.” In 1911, Boas published a book called the Handbook of American Indian Languages. In the introduction to his book, Boas claimed that the Inuit he met had many words for snow. The idea captured readers’ imaginations.

Native Languages and Polysynthesis

However, later linguists said that Boas had misunderstood the Inuit language. Along with many other Native American languages, Inuit and Yupik have a special feature called polysynthesis. Polysynthetic languages allow speakers to use single words that contain a lot of information. In order to add to a base word’s meaning, a speaker can simply add more suffixes. Because of polysynthesis, a single Inuit or Yupik word can sometimes contain as much information as a single sentence in English.

For example, in English a person could write the sentence, “He hadn’t said yet that he was going to hunt reindeer again.” In the Yupik language spoken in southwest Alaska, the meaning of this sentence is expressed in one very long word: tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq.

English: He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.

Yupik: tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq

Word part Meaning
tuntu reindeer
ssur hunt
qatar in the future (will)
ni said
ksaite had not
ngqiggte again
uq a third-person word ending

Polysynthesis allows speakers to invent new words to express their meaning. However, linguists must then determine whether these types of words are the invention of one speaker, or whether they are used by others in a group. It is because of polysynthesis, some linguists say, that Boas mistakenly thought there were so many individual words for snow.

Many Words for Snow and Ice

Other linguists today, however, think that Boas was actually being careful when compiling his word lists. Igor Krupnik is an anthropologist who works at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Arctic Studies Center. He says that Boas made sure to list only words for snow that really were really different from one another. Krupnik studied several dialects of Inuit, or regionally different versions of a language, and like Boas, he found many more words for snow than English has.

The Inuit dialect spoken in the Nunavik region in the far north of the Canadian province of Quebec has at least 53 distinct words for snow. Matsaaruti is wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners. On the other hand, pukak is for powdery snow that resembles salt.

Linguists later found that Inuit and Yupik languages have many words to describe not only snow, but other features of the icy landscape. One dialect has about 70 terms just for different types of sea ice. The Inuit and Yupik are not alone in having a lot of words to describe the far north. The Sami people, who live in the far north of Scandinavia and Russia, have about 180 words related to snow and ice. Unlike Yupik or Inuit, none of the Sami languages use polysynthesis. Each word for ice and snow is clearly distinct.

Linguists say that people shouldn’t be surprised by the large vocabulary northern people use to describe ice or snow. One main reason why there are so many words for them is because both are crucial to surviving in the harsh Arctic environment. “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it,” says linguist Willem de Reuse. “It’s a matter of life or death.”

A fog hangs over the city of Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. As Inuit people move away from traditional practices, some researchers are afraid that native knowledge of the science of snow and ice may disappear soon.

Fog hangs over the city of Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. As the Inuit continue to move away from their traditional cultures, some researchers are afraid that native knowledge of the science of snow and ice may disappear in the near future.

Lessons About Snow and Ice

Matthew Sturm is a geophysicist who works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. A trained scientist, he has been especially impressed by the Inuit’s knowledge about what causes different types of snow or ice formations. Sturm admitted that one tribal elder “knew as much about snow as I knew after 30 years as a scientist.” Sturm says that it is more important for researchers to document native people’s knowledge of the Arctic than simply counting how many words for snow they use. “These are real words that mean real things,” he cautioned.

“All languages find a way to say what they need to say,” Sturm added. “It is the expertise these words contain that is of most interest, rather than the squabble about the number of terms.”

Linguists say that people need to act quickly in order to learn the ideas behind the Inuit and Yupik words for snow. Today, many indigenous people in the Arctic are moving away from their traditional cultures. As they adopt contemporary American or Canadian lifestyles, the expertise behind their words for different types of snow is fading. In fact, when Boas lived with the Inuit on Baffin Island in the late 1800s, there were probably even more words for snow and ice than there are now, over 100 years later.  “Boas only recorded a small fragment of the words available,” said Igor Krupnik. “At his time there would have been many more terms than there are today.”

Additional Resources

Read more about words for snow at the Washington Post and the University of Buffalo.

Learn about other polysynthetic languages at Native Languages.org and Alaska Native Languages.

Watch live video feeds of life in the far north at Explore.

Images and Sources

Inuit in Cape Dorset photo: Ansgar Walk
Inuit in Cape Dorset photo license: Creative Commons 2.5

Iqaluit photo: Angela
Iqaluit photo license: Creative Commons 2.0