A few choice words for snow

The frozen north                                                                    Baron Reznik/Flickr  

The frozen north                                                                    Baron Reznik/Flickr  

If the view outside your window is an unbroken field of white, welcome to the snowy portion of the program. March is always fickle but the latest snow storm, arriving on the first full day of spring, added insult to injury.

What you have to say about the white stuff probably depends on your age and occupation — and whether you get a snow day. How you phrase what you say has everything to do with the language you speak.

You may have heard that because they live so intimately with the stuff, the “Eskimos” have an inordinate number of words for snow. Rumor puts the figure at 100, 200, even 400. I hate to puncture such a fanciful piece of inflation, fond as I am of words, but this “fact” is simply not true and the hyperbolic word count is now referred to in linguistic circles as the “Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax.”

The whole thing started when the anthropologist Franz Boaz in 1911 published his “Handbook of the North American Indians.” In it, he claimed that the “Eskimos” lacked a single word synonymous with our “snow,” but rather had four root words that separately described snow on the ground, falling, drifting and piled up in igloos.

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote an article putting his own inaccurate spin on Boaz’s work. He claimed that “Eskimos” had separate and unique words for every variety of snow and ice, leading to speculation that the total number could amount to dozens, hundreds — maybe thousands — of words.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound too improbable, since snow and ice are all these natives see for 10 months or more a year. But look a little closer, and the whole premise breaks down.

For one thing, no native group calls itself “Eskimos,” although the term persists to collectively describe natives of the far north. And there are actually five languages spoken by five Arctic Circle groups more precisely known by terms like Inuit, Yupik and Umingmaktormuuit. These languages are like Tinkertoy sets, building words by cobbling together “lexemes” or root words and their modifiers.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that “Eskimo” linguistic groups don’t always agree on words and meaning. Written language and spelling are sometimes a matter of guesswork. In the end, experts agree that it’s really quite difficult to say just how many words the Northlanders use to describe snow and ice.

Once more into the breach....                like_the_grand_canyon/Flickr

Once more into the breach....                like_the_grand_canyon/Flickr

Researchers have identified 10 in Labradoran Inuit, 15 in Yupik, 32 in Inupiat and 49 in West Greenlandic, but even these lists are bewil­dering. Are “qanuk” and “qanik” — meaning “snowflake” — different words from different languages or just regional variants of the same word?

English may not have conjured up single, distinct words for “new fallen snow” (apiraat in Greenlandic Inuit) “soft deep snow” (mauja in Labrodoran Inuit), “hard, crusty snow” (qetrar in Yupik) or “feath­ery clumps of falling snow” (qanipalaat in Greenlandic). But Eng­lish-speakers are not the slouches we’ve been made out to be when it comes to describing the effects of icy cold on atmospheric and earth­bound moisture.

We get snow in blizzards, flurries, dustings and drifts, all accumulations of snowflakes. When it’s more rain than snow it’s sleet — or in the worst case — a wintry mix. When it’s wet it’s slush, and when it’s light and relatively dry, it’s pow­der.

On the ground, the stuff com­presses into snowbanks and hard-pack, possibly leaving us snow­bound. If we’re snow-blind on the mountain because we left our sun­glasses home or if we get lost in a whiteout, a snowstorm that obscures the horizon, we might not see the avalanche, our word for “snow falling rapidly down a slope.”

We have yet more words for ice, which might dangle from our eaves as icicles or put a dangerous glaze on the roads. In milder form it’s frost or rime, in extreme amounts it might be an ice shelf, ice field or glacier. That glacier may feature a serac, an isolated pinnacle of ice, or sastrugi, ripples on the surface caused by the action of wind.

Put to sea in the far north and you get to use other cool words to describe the ice you encounter. There are icebergs, calved from glaciers, and floes, flat pieces of sea ice ranging from giant to small. Portions of broken icebergs are called bergy bits, and pieces smaller still are growlers. The stuff between floes, a thick broth of ice fragments, is known as brash ice.

You don’t need glaciers to have ice in the water. As temperatures drop, frazil ice forms first; it’s char­acterized by fine spicules sus­pended in the top few inches of sea water. Grease ice is the next step, occurring when frazil ice coagulates in a soupy layer on the ocean sur­face. Nilas describes a thin elastic crust of ice, which can thicken into pancake ice or pack ice, with or without polynyas, or areas of open water.

If you’d like a purely unscientific laugh, you might check out Phil James’ tongue-in-cheek list of “Fake Eskimo Snow Words.” Based on “tla,” his root word for snow, he’s invented words for “snow sold to Japanese tour­ists” (tlanip), snow used to make Eskimo Margaritas (mextla) and snow falling to the sound of rock ’n’ roll oldies, tla-na-na.

Meanwhile, if you can find nothing at all amusing about snow, you can construct an epithet, Eskimo-style. Add the suffix -tluk or “bad” to the word “kaniktshaq” for snow. Mutter “kaniktshaqtluk” darkly, while looking out the window, and you will have expressed your feelings appropriately, in the style of the far, frozen north.