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]

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?


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.

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