Sastrugi, or snow dunes, like these have endless variety of shapes. Photo by National Snow and Ice Data Center
A friend called from Chicago to say he was heading to Michigan to cross-country ski and he wanted to know what the snow was like up here. I had to break the news that we were in the middle of a thaw, with the temperature in the 40s, and the trails were a mess.
"How would you describe the snow?” he asked.
“Kind of cruddy,” I said.
Which brings to mind the many Eskimo words for snow. That the Inuit can recite a seemingly endless list has been passed around as fact for more than a century, and I have to admit (because it’s documented, alas) that I once passed it around as casually as anyone. It makes a good story — the fur-clad people of the arctic reciting their hundreds of designations while eager ethnologists took notes. The trouble is, it’s not true.
The story of how the myth originated is as winding as a coyote’s trail. It apparently began when anthropologist Franz Boas mentioned in print in 1911 that Eskimos had four separate word roots referring to snow. Soon after, in a widely reprinted article, the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf exaggerated the count to seven. And then the story went viral. Countless magazine articles, scientific papers, op-ed pieces, newspaper columns, textbooks, and popular books conflated the figure to dozens, then scores, and ultimately to as many as 400.
I played it a little safer than some in my book, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky. I wrote, “Dozens of variations—as many as 200, by some accounts—make it possible for Inuits and Eskimos to speak more precisely about snow than anyone on earth.”
Well, I stand corrected. (And so does the new edition of the book.)
It turns out that linguists have argued for years that our count was way off. In 1986, anthropologist Laura Martin traced the myth’s pathway in an article in the journal American Anthropologist. Geoffrey Pullum shortly afterward wielded his own debunking axe in his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, taking the trouble, as few have, to consult C.W. Schultz-Lorentzen’s Dictionary of the West Greenland Eskimo Language (published in 1927), in which are listed only two root words for snow: qanik, for “snowflake” or “snow in the air,” and aput, for “snow on the ground.” Variations of those roots add up to about twelve separate words for types of snow.
The crazy thing is, we use more than that in English. A quick search through the literature of downhill skiing and snowboarding reveals a list that includes powder, chowder, crud, crust, slush, pack, hard pack, packed powder, ballroom, boilerplate, neve, and buffed.
There’s also fluff, cold smoke, corduroy, corn, mashed potatoes, and the borrowed Russian sastrugi (for windblown drifts shaped like waves in water).
And don’t forget windslab, glop, blue ice, and sugar. And of course Sierra cement, kitty litter, and death cookies.
Leave it up to people who play every day in the snow to invent the best words for it. Their linguistic inventiveness helps us to understand why the Eskimo vocabulary hoax was so believable in the first place. Whether in play or work, the more involved we become in something, the more complex is the language we invent for it.
Jerry Dennis lives up to his waist in snow in northern Michigan. His many books include A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame, The Living Great Lakes, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, and The Bird in the Waterfall. Visit him at www.JerryDennis.net. Read all of Jerry's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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