Eskimo Words for Snow

15 November, 2011

As I was reading about global warming and its effect on the Arctic and the people who live there, I couldn’t help bumping into some words in West Greenlandic. This is the main Inuit language spoken in Greenland. The people who actually speak it call it ‘Kalaallisut’. In June 2009 it was made the official language of the Greenlandic autonomous territory.

For example, I read about Sermersuaq. This is the Northern Hemisphere’s widest ‘tidewater glacier’: one that begins on land but terminates in water. It stretches 90 kilometers across!

This glacier is also called the Humboldt Glacier, but with all due respect to Humboldt, I’d rather call this magnificent, intensely forbidding realm by the name used by the people who can manage to live there! And so, I’d rather use the Kalaallisut word: Sermersuaq.

To see why Sermersuaq is a big deal, check out these photos taken by Nick Cobbing of Greenpeace:


Here’s a photo NASA took of Sermersuaq in 2000:

And here’s a photo they took in 2008, with the 2000 terminus again marked:

It lost 175 square kilometers of ice during that time.

Anyway, after seeing words like Semersuaq, Kangerdlugssuaq, and so on, I started wondering about a famous urban legend.

You’ve probably heard that the Eskimos have lots of words for snow. And maybe you’ve heard other people say “no, that’s not true”.

But the whole dispute starts seeming rather silly when you find out that the Eskimo — or more precisely, the speakers of Kalaallisut — have a word for “once again they tried to build a giant radio station, but it was apparently only on the drawing board.” It’s


When I learned this, I decided I wanted to learn a bit more about Kalaallisut!

For starters, Kalaallisut is just one of several closely related Inuit languages spoken in Greenland and Canada. Here is a map showing these languages:

In my attempts to learn more, I bumped into this piece:

• Mick Mallon, Inuktitut Linguistics for Technocrats, Ittukuluuk Language Programs, Iqaluit, 2000.

It’s about Inuktitut, which is the collective name for a group of Inuit languages spoken in Eastern Canada. You can see them on the map: they’re called Qikiqtaaluk nigiani, Nunavimmiutitut, and Nunatsiavummiutut.

This language is very different from English: it’s polysynthetic, meaning that words can be composed of many pieces.

For example, verbs can be singular, dual, or plural:

takujunga — I see
takujuguk — we two see
takujugut — we several see

But instead of using words like “because”, “if” or “whether”, they use different suffixes:

takugama — because I see
takugunnuk — if we two see
takungmangaatta — whether we several see

The object of the verb can be attached as a suffix:

takujagit — I see you
takujara — I see him
takugakku — because I see him

There are also suffixes that turn verbs to nouns, and suffixes that turn nouns to verbs… and you can even use both in a single complicated word!

There are also ways to indicate whether something is stationary or moving, expected or unexpected:

tavva! — Here it is! (stationary and expected)
avva! — There it is over there! (mobile and unexpected)

There are ways to add spatial information:

tavvani — at this (expected) spot
maangat — from this (unexpected) area
tappaunga — to that (expected) area up there
kanuuna — through that (unexpected) spot down there

And all this is just scratching the surface! Words can easily become huge—and in in a typical written text, only a minority of words are ever repeated.

Whether despite this or because of it, I think we must admit that the Inuit do have a marvelously terse way of describing lots of concepts related to snow and ice. For example, here’s a word list taken from Fortescue’s text on Kalaallisut:

• ‘sea-ice’ — siku (in plural = drift ice)
• ‘pack-ice/large expanses of ice in motion’ — sikursuit, pl. (compacted drift ice/ice field = sikut iqimaniri)
• ‘new ice’ — sikuliaq/sikurlaaq (solid ice cover = nutaaq)
• ‘thin ice’ — sikuaq (in plural = thin ice floes)
• ‘rotten (melting) ice floe’ — sikurluk
• ‘iceberg’ — iluliaq (ilulisap itsirnga = part of iceberg below waterline)
• ‘(piece of) fresh-water ice’ — nilak
• ‘lumps of ice stranded on the beach' — issinnirit, pl.
• ‘glacier’ (also ice forming on objects) — sirmiq (sirmirsuaq = inland ice)
• ‘snow blown in (e.g. doorway)’ — sullarniq
• ‘rime/hoar-frost’ — qaqurnak/kanirniq/kaniq
• ‘frost (on inner surface of e.g. window)’ — iluq
• ‘icy mist’ — pujurak/pujuq kanirnartuq
• ‘hail’ — nataqqurnat
• ‘snow (on ground)’ — aput (aput sisurtuq = avalanche)
• ‘slush (on ground)’ — aput masannartuq
• ‘snow in air/falling’ — qaniit (qanik = snowflake)
• ‘air thick with snow’ — nittaalaq (nittaallat, pl. = snowflakes; nittaalaq nalliuttiqattaartuq = flurries)
• ‘hard grains of snow’ — nittaalaaqqat, pl.
• ‘feathery clumps of falling snow’ — qanipalaat
• ‘new fallen snow’ — apirlaat
• ‘snow crust’ — pukak
• ‘snowy weather’ — qannirsuq/nittaatsuq
• ‘snowstorm’ — pirsuq/pirsirsursuaq
• ‘large ice floe’ — iluitsuq
• ‘snowdrift’ — apusiniq
• ‘ice floe’ — puttaaq
• ‘hummocked ice/pressure ridges in pack ice’ — maniillat/ingunirit, pl.
• ‘drifting lump of ice’ — kassuq (dirty lump of glacier-calved ice = anarluk)
• ‘ice-foot (left adhering to shore)’ — qaannuq
• ‘icicle’ — kusugaq
• ‘opening in sea ice imarnirsaq/ammaniq (open water amidst ice = imaviaq)
• ‘lead (navigable fissure) in sea ice’ — quppaq
• ‘rotten snow/slush on sea’ — qinuq
• ‘wet snow falling’ — imalik
• ‘rotten ice with streams forming’ — aakkarniq
• ‘snow patch (on mountain, etc.)’ — aputitaq
• ‘wet snow on top of ice’ — putsinniq/puvvinniq
• ‘smooth stretch of ice’ — manirak (stretch of snow-free ice = quasaliaq)
• ‘lump of old ice frozen into new ice’ — tuaq
• ‘new ice formed in crack in old ice’ — nutarniq
• ‘bits of floating ice’ — naggutit, pl.
• ‘hard snow’ — mangiggal/mangikaajaaq
• ‘small ice floe (not large enough to stand on)’ — masaaraq
• ‘ice swelling over partially frozen river, etc. from water seeping up to the surface’ — siirsinniq
• ‘piled-up ice-floes frozen together’ — tiggunnirit
• ‘mountain peak sticking up through inland ice’ — nunataq
• ‘calved ice (from end of glacier)’ — uukkarnit
• ‘edge of the (sea) ice’ — sinaaq

Pretty cool, eh?

I made some music and art based on these glacial themes. You can see and hear it here.

If you like this icy ambient music — which is, I readily admit, not exactly dripping with catchy riffs— you’ll love these classic albums by Thomas Köner, which are even more minimal and chilly:


You can hear them for free now!