LINGUIST List 5.1293

Sun 13 Nov 1994

Disc: Words for snow in Eskimo and English Lgs

Editor for this issue: <>


  • , Eskimo words for "snow", "ice", etc.
  • , Eskimo snow in context
  • David Prager Branner, English snow words

    Message 1: Eskimo words for "snow", "ice", etc.

    Date: Fri, 11 Nov 1994 13:17:28 Eskimo words for "snow", "ice", etc.
    Subject: Eskimo words for "snow", "ice", etc.

    As an Eskimologist and an anthropologist, I strongly concur with Woodbury's and Hill's recent messages on the topic. I have two responses: one to the person who suggested that maybe what was peculiar about Eskimo words for snow is not the number of lexical items to be found in a dictionary, but rather that these words are used more often and even by non-specialists within the culture. I am sorry that I can't track down the name of this person, which I must have deleted by mistake. But this is an interesting idea. My answer is that Eskimos talk about snow about as often as a Sahara Tuareg would talk about rain, in other words, not very often. Remember that the Arctic is technically a desert; i.e. there is very little precipitation, although whatever snow that does fall remains on the ground, an~rd is blown a}iround into funny shapes, for which there is of course, a technical terminology, used mainly by huntersd who need to use these things as landmarks. Snow (as a ground cover or falling) is really not very important to Eskimos. I suggest that we start looking at some of the languages of the Subarctic groups of Canada (Cree, Chipewyan), these people live in deep snow, and probably talk about it a lot more! My second response is for George Fowler who suggest that there might be an fashion of Eskimo words for ----- going on. He talks about 50 words for ice in Greenlandic. He was speaking facetiously, of course, but there is a point to be made here. Eskimos who hunt on ice (such as the Siberian Yupik Eskimos I worked with) have an incredibly detailed technical terminology for ice conditions, icebergs, ice thickness and movements. For Eskimo hunters, these things are concretely a matter of life and death. So Eskimos do have many words for ice, and as for snow, this is a technical terminology, and as for snow, it is entirely based on a few stems that actually mean "ice", and on many stems that do not fundamentally mean "ice". So, at least in some Eskimo languages, such as Cnetral Siberian Yupik Eskimo, there are actually more expressions (or if you want "words") for "ice" than for "snow". For the definition of a "word" and "stem" in Eskimo, I refer y'all back to Woodbury's statement. The point is that technical terminology for things that interest Eskimos is no different from technical terminology that is relevant to, say, Swiss cuckoo clock makers.

    Willem J. de Reuse Dept. of Anthropology University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721

    Message 2: Eskimo snow in context

    Date: Sat, 12 Nov 94 17:18:37 ESEskimo snow in context
    From: <>
    Subject: Eskimo snow in context

    As the quotation from Whorf shows, he was concerned with the issue of whether there is a general term like 'snow' in Eskimo languages, not with whether Eskimo (or English) have a multitude of specialized terms. It may be useful to point out that in the second half of the 19th century and thereafter one of the big issues concerning linguists and anthropologists was whether "primitive" people and their "primitive" languages possessed abstract terms. I think that we must view Whorf's and others' preoccupations in this context. (It may be of interest to add that the other great issues regarding "primitive" languages was whether they possess clearly defined sounds, since it was widely claimed that speakersof such languages "alternate" between different pronunications. It was Boas who showed that this was an illusion, but I think that many people would not listen, and that works such as Sapir's paper on the sound pattenrs and even on psychological reality are largely to be understoods as attempts to defend the Boas position). In any case, it should be clear that the issue was never how many words a language might have for specific kinds of anything, but whether it has words for the general types or kinds. And in this context the only question is whether the Eskimo languages have one word for 'snow' like English or two like Ancient Greek or whether they only have a variety of more particular words for kinds of snow.


    Message 3: English snow words

    Date: Sat, 12 Nov 1994 15:36:48 English snow words
    From: David Prager Branner <>
    Subject: English snow words

    Jonathan David Bobaljik posted a message to Vol. 5-1276 of this list in which he discusses the various Yup'ik words for snow that have been contributed by Anthony Woodbury. For the sake of comparison he has a list of 9 or 10 English words for snow and snow-like things. I thought it would be useful to find out whether each of these English words means _primarily_ snow or whether the snow sense is derived, figurative, or otherwise secondary. I have consulted the various editions of the Oxford English Dictionary. My results are as follows:

    A. Acceptable cases:

    1. snow: A good English word with a respectable pedigree. Means primarily snow.

    2. sleet: Also good. By the way, is there an Eskimo term corresponding to this?

    3. slush: Also good.

    4. avalanche: This word seems to have referred to snow avalanches from the beginning.

    5. blizzard: The first edition of the OED says, "A modern word. ... As applied to a 'snow-squall,' the word became general in the American newspapers during the severe winter of 1880-81; but according to the _Milwaukee Republican_ =FF 4 March 1881, it had been so applied in the _Northern Vindicator_ (Esthersville, Iowa) between 1860 and 1870. It was apparently in colloquial use in the West much earlier..." The latest edition of the OED has a citation from 1859.


    B. Doubtful cases:

    1. cornice: This is really an architectural term, meaning the "crown" on a building. Its use to refer to a type of snow formation is merely figurative.

    2. firn: This is certainly a very rare and specialized word. The OED marks it "not naturalized"; its synonym _n'ev'e_ is marked the same way. I would accept neither.

    3. drift: With the meaning 'snow-drift' this word is attested c. 1300, ("This castel..quitter es pan snau drif[t].") but it clearly has too many other related senses, such as "off-course movement of a boat" and "gist of what someone is saying." Drift is related to "to drive". Compare Bobaljik's discussion of Yup'ik _natquik_ 'drifting snow'.

    4. flurry: This word means primarily 'gust' or 'squall'. Washington Irving is cited in 1836 talking about "flurries of snow", but there are other cases of flurries of rain, birds. Conclusion: not primarily a snow word.

    5. sinkhole: Bobaljik rejects _muruaneq_ 'soft, deep snow', offering "sinkhole" as roughly comparable (and presumably also unacceptable).=20 "Sinkhole" is not in the OED. My understanding of a sinkhole is any depression in which liquid collects, especially in the ground. I do not think it has anything to do with snow per se.


    C. Special case:

    1. frost: I have left "frost" out of the English list, since it has more to do with frozen dew and ice than with snow. I have also omitted "rime" and "hoarfrost" ("hoar" is figurative for old age). Accordingly, I urge that words for frost be omitted from the Eskimo lists.


    D. Conclusion:

    My count is 5 good English words whose primary meanings are snow or forms of snow. Bobaljik also allows only 5 "exclusively snow-related simple roots" in Yup'ik (excluding "frost" as explained above).

    I am not a specialist in English etymology, but I am experienced at using the OED. Is _muruaneq_ 'soft, deep snow' really not a purely snow word, as Bobaljik says? I would also like to know what "Eskimo" languages there are other than Yup'ik for which snow-words are recorded in detail.

    David Prager Branner, Yuen Ren Society Asian L&L, DO-21, University of Washington Seattle, WA 98195=09=09=09=09<>