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Eskimo Snow Lexemes

The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax is anthropology's contribution to urban legends. It apparently started in 1911 when anthropologist Franz Boaz casually mentioned that the Inuit - he called them "Eskimos," using the derogatory term of a tribe to the south of them for eaters of raw meat - had four different words for snow. With each succeeding reference in textbooks and the popular press the number grew to sometimes as many as 400 words!!

Below 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.

Snow particles

1: Snowflake

  • qanuk 'snowflake'
  • qanir- 'to snow'
  • qanunge- 'to snow' [Nunivak]
  • qanugglir- 'to snow' [Nunivak]

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...'

Fallen snow

6: Fallen snow on the ground

  • aniu [Norton Sound dialect] 'snow on ground'
  • aniu- [Norton Sound dialect] 'get snow on ground'
  • apun [Norton Sound dialect] '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- [Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect] 'for snow to crust'
  • qerretrar- [Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect] 'for snow to crust'

9: Fresh fallen snow on the ground

  • nutaryuk 'fresh snow' [Hooper Bay-Chevak]

10: Fallen snow floating on water

  • qanisqineq 'snow floating on water'

Snow formations

11: Snow bank

  • qengaruk 'snow bank' [Yukon River area subdialect of General Central Alaskan Yupik dialect, Hooper Bay-Chevak]

12: Snow block

  • utvak 'snow carved in block'

13: Snow cornice

  • navcaq [Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect] 'snow cornice, snow (formation) about to collapse'
  • navcite- 'get caught in an avalanche'

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'

Read The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow by Phil James

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