Eskimo words for snow

Stuart Derby. Eskimo words for Snow. alt.folklore.urban. 1994

From: (Stuart P. Derby) 
Newsgroups: alt.folklore.urban 
Subject: Eskimo words for Snow 
Date: 2 Nov 1994 22:54:58 GMT 


Does "Eskimo" REALLY have some megaboss number of words for snow? Well that depends on what "megaboss" means, of course. And it also depends on what language you decide is "Eskimo". The dialects spoken by coastal native peoples from the east of Siberia to Greenland are classed as Eskimo, but many scholars divide them into two languages, Yupik and Inuit, with some scholars further sub-dividing these dialects. Inuit (also called Inupik) is the best candidate from a folkloric point of view, being spoken most widely, from Greenland to northeastern Alaska, having been written earlier (1742), having about twice as many speakers, and having had longer and greater contact with "Western Civilization". (Greenlandic Inuit contains 4 words borrowed from medieval Norse.[1])

Another complication to the issue is simply the notion of "word". Languages vary quite drastically in how the base units of meaning (morphemes) are combined into words, if they're combined at all, and our common notion of "word" needs clarifying. For example, in English, are "book" and "books" two SEPARATE words? I would guess that most of us would think not. (What about "book", "handbook", "guidebook", "workbook"?) However, many languages are "isolating", wherein one word corresponds to one element of the situation, and would use two separate words to say "books". A speaker of such a language might well regard "book" and "books" as two separate words. The Eskimo languages are at the other extreme, and are the prototypical example of a polysynthetic language[2], wherein one word contains several elements of the situation. This allows very complex ideas to be expressed in one word, e.g. 'tikitqaarminaitnigaa' "he(1) said that he(2) would not be able to arrive first"[1].

Thus "my snow", "your snow", etc., would each be one word in Inuit, a stem form with a possessive affix. The Eskimo languages use derived words extensively, and there are fewer than 2,000 base stems in the West Greenlandic dialect[1] With all that said, I'll just present some word lists and let everyone come up with their own opinion...

10 words for ice and snow from Labradoran Inuit[3]

This word list is extracted from an Eskimo to English "dictionary" and is definitely not comprehensive. This was the worst such compilation I have ever worked with; among other problems, the compilers' attempts to alphabetize things, even short indices, failed miserably (e.g. "snow" before "seasons"). Consider also this from the preface:

Be it noticed beforehand that the Eskimo are not agreed in the use of their language with reference to many words -- not only that in the South here and there other expressions are used, and also that to many a word another meaning is given than in the North, but even in one and the same place not infrequently such differences are found. And frequently the female sex has again its peculiar expressions. With regard to the latter, not much notice has been taken in composing this dictionary, because the men often only laugh about them; ...

  1. 'ice' sikko
  2. 'bare ice' tingenek
  3. 'snow (in general)' aput
  4. 'snow (like salt)' pukak
  5. 'soft deep snow' mauja
  6. 'snowdrift' tipvigut
  7. 'soft snow' massak
  8. 'watery snow' mangokpok
  9. 'snow filled with water' massalerauvok
  10. 'soft snow' akkilokipok

49 words for snow and ice from West Greenlandic[4]

This word list is taken from a book on West Greenlandic grammar is almost certainly not comprehensive. I've entered the list as it appears in Fortescue's "West Greenlandic". Note that in Fortescue 'q' corresponds to 'k' in Peck.

  1. 'sea-ice' siku (in plural = drift ice)
  2. 'pack-ice/large expanses of ice in motion' sikursuit, pl. (compacted drift ice/ice field = sikut iqimaniri)
  3. 'new ice' sikuliaq/sikurlaaq (solid ice cover = nutaaq.)
  4. 'thin ice' sikuaq (in plural = thin ice floes)
  5. 'rotten (melting) ice floe' sikurluk
  6. 'iceberg' iluliaq (ilulisap itsirnga = part of iceberg below waterline)
  7. '(piece of) fresh-water ice' nilak
  8. 'lumps of ice stranded on the beach' issinnirit, pl.
  9. 'glacier' (also ice forming on objects) sirmiq (sirmirsuaq = Inland Ice)
  10. 'snow blown in (e.g. doorway)' sullarniq
  11. 'rime/hoar-frost' qaqurnak/kanirniq/kaniq
  12. 'frost (on inner surface of e.g. window)' iluq
  13. 'icy mist' pujurak/pujuq kanirnartuq
  14. 'hail' nataqqurnat
  15. 'snow (on ground)' aput (aput sisurtuq = avalanche)
  16. 'slush (on ground)' aput masannartuq
  17. 'snow in air/falling' qaniit (qanik = snowflake)
  18. 'air thick with snow' nittaalaq (nittaallat, pl. = snowflakes; nittaalaq nalliuttiqattaartuq = flurries)
  19. 'hard grains of snow' nittaalaaqqat, pl.
  20. 'feathery clumps of falling snow' qanipalaat
  21. 'new fallen snow' apirlaat
  22. 'snow crust' pukak
  23. 'snowy weather' qannirsuq/nittaatsuq
  24. 'snowstorm' pirsuq/pirsirsursuaq
  25. 'large ice floe' iluitsuq
  26. 'snowdrift' apusiniq
  27. 'ice floe' puttaaq
  28. 'hummocked ice/pressure ridges in pack ice' maniillat/ingunirit, pl.
  29. 'drifting lump of ice' kassuq (dirty lump of glacier-calved ice = anarluk)
  30. 'ice-foot (left adhering to shore)' qaannuq
  31. 'icicle' kusugaq
  32. 'opening in sea ice imarnirsaq/ammaniq (open water amidst ice = imaviaq)
  33. 'lead (navigable fissure) in sea ice' quppaq
  34. 'rotten snow/slush on sea' qinuq
  35. 'wet snow falling' imalik
  36. 'rotten ice with streams forming' aakkarniq
  37. 'snow patch (on mountain, etc.)' aputitaq
  38. 'wet snow on top of ice' putsinniq/puvvinniq
  39. 'smooth stretch of ice' manirak (stretch of snow-free ice = quasaliaq)
  40. 'lump of old ice frozen into new ice' tuaq
  41. 'new ice formed in crack in old ice' nutarniq
  42. 'bits of floating' naggutit, pl.
  43. 'hard snow' mangiggal/mangikaajaaq
  44. 'small ice floe (not large enough to stand on)' masaaraq
  45. 'ice swelling over partially frozen river, etc. from water seeping up to the surface' siirsinniq
  46. 'piled-up ice-floes frozen together' tiggunnirit
  47. 'mountain peak sticking up through inland ice' nunataq
  48. 'calved ice (from end of glacier)' uukkarnit
  49. 'edge of the (sea) ice' sinaaq


Does Eskimo have some megaboss number of words for snow? It depends on how you count, but they certainly have more than English.

Some miscellany

While English "igloo" meaning 'snow house' comes from Inuit, "iglo" (or "illu") more generally means 'house' or home' in most dialects. Sometimes houses are constructed of peat[3,4]. English "kayak" comes from Inuit "qayaq" (means the same)[3,4]. The stereotypical Eskimo name Nanook corresponds to "nanuq" 'polar bear'[4].

Scholars sure do have understated ways of sniping at each other: "In fact Bourquin's tendency to describe the Labrador dialect by quoting at length from Kleinschmidt's description of Greenlandic is unavoidably a major methodological impediment for present-day researchers.[5]"


[1] Encyc. Britannica,15th Ed.,1984, ISBN 0-85229-413-1.

Macropaedia Vol. 6, p962-964, "Eskimo-Aleut Languages". [2] Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 1973, Winfred P. Lehman,

ISBN 0-03-078370-4.p46-49
[3] Eskimo-English Dictionary: Compiled from Erdman's Eskimo-German

Edition of 1864, 1925, Rev. Edmund J. Peck, D.D. (C.M.S. Missionary, Apostle to the Eskimos). We don't need no stinkin' ISBN! [4] West Greenlandic,1984, Michael Fortescue. ISBN 0-7099-1069-X [5] Eskimo Languages: Their Present Day Conditions, 1979,

Basse&Jensen, eds., p.94.

Stu "just the faqs, ma'am" Derby