Snow goes by many different names

Skiers, at least those who ski frequently, have many unique terms to describe snow, such as:

  • champagne (ultralight, fresh snow)
  • boilerplate (dense snow that resembles ice)
  • corn (loose kernels of snow)
  • death cookies (ice chips frozen to snow surface)

Like skiers, Canada’s Inuit also have dozens of words for snow. Many southern Canadians have heard and repeated the story that Inuit people have 50 or more words for snow.

Richard Compton, a linguistics professor at the Université du Quebec a Montreal, said it’s true, or at least partially true.

Compton said it depends on how you count words in Inuktitut, the Inuit language spoken in the eastern half of Canada’s Arctic.

Counting synonyms for snow is complicated in Inuktitut because words are much more complex than other languages. Compton said a single word in Inuit might have as much meaning as an entire sentence in English.

“In Inuktutit you can say things like, ‘I’m not building libraries anymore,’ and that’s just one word.”

Inuit and other indigenous languages in North America are polysynthetic, which means it’s possible to pack multiple concepts and observations into a single word.

The following Inuit examples for snow illustrate the concept:

  • Qaniut: The first thin, soft, fresh snowfall before the wind or storm.
  • Qanniqusiuqtuq: He is travelling or arriving while it is snowing.
  • Quilluqqaaq: New snow formed by a storm, which is now hardened following the storm.

Gavin Nesbitt, who works for the Piruvik Centre, an Inuit language and culture organization in Iqaluit, said people in Canada’s Arctic distinguish between different types of snow, much like southern Canadians.

For instance, people from the Prairies are likely familiar with the dry snow and the squeaky-crunchy sound it makes when the temperature drops below –30 C.

“Up here you get snow that’s even drier than you get in (Manitoba). It’s basically like walking on Styrofoam,” Nesbitt said.

“The idea is that Inuit, matching their environment, have all these words for snow, which means they see reality differently…. People in the jungle see different colours that you or I don’t see because we don’t have the words (for them) or don’t see (the colours).”

The multitude of Inuit words to characterize types of snow and describe the Arctic environment is a form of expertise. Nesbitt said the Inuit, much like experts, have developed distinctive terminology to express their knowledge of snow.

“Anybody who specializes in something is going to end up with a lot of terminology.”

Nesbitt said the belief that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow is a familiar question for Inuktitut language experts. The question, though, has already been answered.

“Whether there are actually 50 words for snow, it almost doesn’t matter any more. People believe there are. So, there are.”

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