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Eskimo Words for 'Snow'

This list came from the LINGUIST mailing list, and was forwarded by
pagre@weber.ucsd.edu (Phil Agre)
When Geoff Pullum's book, The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, came out, I started getting quite
a number of inquiries from journalists about "words for 'snow' in Eskimo." That motivated me to
prepare the appended item. Please feel free to pass it around.
Tony Woodbury
Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide
Lexemes referring to snow and snow-related notions in Steven A. Jacobson's (1984) Yup'ik
Eskimo dictionary[1]
Anthony C. Woodbury
University of Texas at Austin
July 1991
This is a list of lexemes referring to snow and related notions in one Eskimo
language, Central Alaskan Yupik (or just Yup'ik Eskimo). It is spoken by about
13,000 people in the coast and river areas of Southwestern Alaska from
Norton Sound to Bristol Bay. It is one of five Eskimo languages. (Of these five,
probably the best-known is Inuit, spoken in a series of well-differentiated
dialects ranging from Northern Alaska, all across the Canadian far north, and
up to the coast of Greenland. While the term Inuit is preferred to Eskimo by
many in Canada, the term is retained here because (a) it properly refers to
any Eskimo group, not only the Inuit; and (b) its use is widespread in Native
communities in Alaska.)
This is a list of lexemes rather than of words. Roughly, a lexeme can be
thought of as an independent vocabulary item or dictionary entry. It's
different from a word since a lexeme can give rise to more than one distinctly
inflected word. Thus English has a single lexeme _speak_ which gives rise to
inflected forms like _speaks_, _spoke_, and _spoken_. It's especially important
to count lexemes rather than words when talking about Eskimo languages.
That's because they are inflectionally so complicated that each single noun
lexeme may have about 280 distinct inflected forms, while each verb lexeme
may have over 1000! Obviously, that would put the number of snow words
through the roof very quickly.
The list is organized according to lexeme *meanings*. Perhaps somewhat
arbitrarily I have counted fifteen of them, placing within each of them noun
and/or verb lexemes having the same basic sense. And perhaps even more
arbitrarily, I've grouped these fifteen meanings into four larger sets. But the
most arbitrary decision of all is left to the discretion of the reader-the
decision of how to count the lexemes themselves. Here are some of the
problems you face:
(a) Are all fifteen lexeme meanings really 'snow'-meanings? That is, do words
with these meanings really count for you as words for snow?[2]
(b) There are some synonyms present--alternative lexemes with the same
meaning, like garbage vs. trash in English. Are you going to count them
separately, or together?
(c) If you decided to count synonyms together, will you also count together
both of the members of noun-verb pairs having basically the same meaning?
(The members are, technically speaking, separate lexemes since partly
idiosyncratic morphological changes mark the verbal forms, and must
therefore be listed separately in any truly informative dictionary, as indeed
Jacobson's dictionary does.)
(d) Following Jacobson, I've specially labelled those lexemes that only occur
in a small subpart of the Central Alaskan Yupik-speaking region. Are you
going to try to make counts for each separate dialect? If yes, you will wonder
if you really have enough information to do so. (You're not alone in this-such
information is difficult to compile, whether or not you are a linguist, and also
whether or not you are a native speaker of a language.)[3]

Eskimo Snow Lexemes


A. Snow particles

(1) Snowflake
qanuk 'snowflake'
qanir- 'to snow'
qanunge- 'to snow' [NUN]
qanugglir- 'to snow' [NUN]
(2) Frost
kaneq 'frost'
kaner- 'be frosty/frost sth.'
(3) Fine snow/rain particles
kanevvluk 'fine snow/rain particles
kanevcir- to get fine snow/rain particles
(4) Drifting particles
natquik 'drifting snow/etc'
natqu(v)igte- 'for snow/etc. to drift along ground'
(5) Clinging particles
nevluk 'clinging debris/
nevlugte- 'have clinging debris/...'lint/snow/dirt...'

B. Fallen snow

(6) Fallen snow on the ground


aniu [NS] 'snow on ground'
aniu- [NS] 'get snow on ground'
apun [NS] 'snow on ground'
qanikcaq 'snow on ground'
qanikcir- 'get snow on ground'
(7) Soft, deep fallen snow on the ground
muruaneq 'soft deep snow'
(8) Crust on fallen snow
qetrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
qerretrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
(9) Fresh fallen snow on the ground
nutaryuk 'fresh snow' [HBC]
(10) Fallen snow floating on water
qanisqineq 'snow floating on water'

C. Snow formations

(11) Snow bank


qengaruk 'snow bank' [Y, HBC]
(12) Snow block
utvak 'snow carved in block'
(13) Snow cornice
navcaq [NSU] 'snow cornice, snow (formation) about to collapse'
navcite- 'get caught in an avalanche'

D. Meterological events

(14) Blizzard, snowstorm


pirta 'blizzard, snowstorm'
pircir- 'to blizzard'
pirtuk 'blizzard, snowstorm'
(15) Severe blizzard
cellallir-, cellarrlir- 'to snow heavily'
pir(e)t(e)pag- 'to blizzard severely'
pirrelvag- 'to blizzard severely'

APPENDIX: An unordered list of English snow


lexemes
avalanche
blizzard
blowing snow
dusting
flurry
frost
hail
hardpack
ice lens
igloo (Inuit iglu 'house')
pingo (Inuit pingu(q) 'ice lens')
powder
sleet
slushsnow
snow bank
snow cornice
snow fort
snow house
snow man
snow-mixed-with-rain?
snowflake
snowstorm
others?

FOOTNOTES
1. Published by Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
2. The indeterminacy and difficulty of this question is due to the fact that
words don't merely match pre-existing things in the world. Rather, they
shape and encapsulate ideas about things--how they are categorized
(compare dog vs. canine), how we are interacting with them (compare sheep
vs. mutton), how the word functions grammatically (compare the noun cow
vs. the adjective bovine), and how we wish to represent our attitudes about
them (compare critter vs. varmint). It was in connection with this point that
discussion of Eskimo words for snow first arose (in the writings of two major
20th Century anthropological linguists, Franz Boas and Benjamin Lee Whorf).
Unfortunately, their point has been pretty much missed by those who insist
on counting.
3. Here are the dialect area abbreviations used:
NS Norton Sound dialect
NSU Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect
HBC Hooper Bay-Chevak
Y Yukon River area subdialect of General Central Alaskan Yupik dialect
NUN Nunivak
LINGUIST List: Vol-5-1239.
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