It is often said that the Inuit have dozens of words to refer to “snow” and “ice.” Intrigued, I researched the topic on the web, to get more information. I found different sites treating the subject, but I think that unfortunately, the majority of those who say something about it do not have much expertise about the Inuit, either at the linguistic or cultural level.
In short, many like to say that the idea of the Inuit having more words for snow and ice is simply a myth, an urban legend. Some even maintain that Inuit languages comprise fewer words than other languages, such as English for instance. In fact, the question of the number of Inuit words for snow and ice really depends on perspective. From a linguistic point of view, it seems to be true that Inuit languages do not have a high number of basic words for snow and ice. To give an idea, just over 20 have been reported for Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit from Canada’s Eastern Arctic. However, the Inuit apparently have different ways of expressing subtleties about types of snow and ice.
In his TCE entry titled “Inuit Words for Snow and Ice“, Dr. L.-J. Dorais mentions that some general words, when used to speak of snow and ice, take on a very specific meaning. This is the case for the Inuktitut word maujaq; it usually refers to any type of soft ground but in winter, it can only apply to snow where the foot sinks. Dr. Dorais also explains that Inuit languages are agglutinative, which means that words are comprised of a radical that provides the basic meaning onto which other elements (affixes) can be added to modify the meaning and/or make it more specific. For example, the word qanik means falling snow whereas qanittaq (“added snow”) refers to freshly fallen snow. Therefore, even though the Inuit don’t have many “words” (as we define the term) for snow and ice, their languages are flexible enough to allow the creation of expressions that convey deep knowledge and nuance about their variations.
I believe the underlying question behind people’s interest for Inuit words about snow and ice is: “Do the Inuit have a deeper knowledge than we do about these elements?” And it stuns me! If we think about it rationally, even with the little knowledge we have about the Inuit way of life, can we really doubt that it is so? Knowing that the Inuit live where the sea is frozen and the ground is covered with snow for most of the year, that they must find their way and travel on foot, with dogsleds, snowmobiles and boats while facing the dangerous elements, that they hunt and fish on snow and ice, that they still sometimes build shelters made from snow – can we truly question the superiority of their knowledge? Do we doubt the fact that a carpenter knows more than we do about the different qualities of woods and is better at woodworking? Do we question the fact that a sailor knows better than us how to read the moods of the sea while navigating? Do we not know already that each field of knowledge possesses its own, specialized, refined language?
Let’s be noble and acknowledge the greatness of the “other.” Let’s marvel at his existence and the richness and diversity that he brings to this world. And let’s wish with all our hearts that the snow continues to fall and sea ice to form, so that this culture keeps shining beside the North Star.
This blog post is available in French.