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Counting Eskimo words for snow:
A citizen's guide.
Lexemes referring to snow and snow-related notions in Steven A. Jacobson's (1984) Yup'ik Eskimo dictionary.[*]

Anthony C. Woodbury
University of Texas at Austin
July 1991

This 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 indeterminacy and difficulty of this question is due to the fact that words don't merely match pre-existing things in the world. Rather, they shape and encapsulate ideas about things--how they are categorized (compare dog vs. canine), how we are interacting with them (compare sheep vs. mutton), how the word functions grammatically (compare the noun cow vs. the adjective bovine), and how we wish to represent our attitudes about them (compare critter vs. varmint). It was in connection with this point that discussion of Eskimo words for snow first arose (in the writings of two major 20th Century anthropological linguists, Franz Boas and Benjamin Lee Whorf). Unfortunately, their point has been pretty much missed by those who insist on counting.

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. Here are some of the problems you face:

Snow particles
qanuk `snowflake'
qanir- `to snow'
qanunge- `to snow' [NUN]
qanugglir- `to snow' [NUN]
kaneq `frost'
kaner- `be frosty/frost sth.'
Fine snow/rain particles
kanevvluk `fine snow/rain particles
kanevcir- to get fine snow/rain particles
Drifting particles
natquik `drifting snow/etc'
natqu(v)igte- `for snow/etc. to drift along ground'
Clinging particles
nevluk `clinging debris/
nevlugte- `have clinging debris/...`lint/snow/dirt ...'
Fallen snow
Fallen snow on the ground
aniu [NS] `snow on ground'
aniu- [NS] `get snow on ground'
apun [NS] `snow on ground'
qanikcaq `snow on ground'
qanikcir- `get snow on ground'
Soft, deep fallen snow on the ground
muruaneq `soft deep snow'
Crust on fallen snow
qetrar- [NSU] `for snow to crust'
qerretrar- [ NSU] `for snow to crust'
Fresh fallen snow on the ground
nutaryuk `fresh snow' [HBC]
Fallen snow floating on water
qanisqineq `snow floating on water'

Snow formations
Snow bank
qengaruk `snow bank' [Y, HBC]
Snow block
utvak `snow carved in block'
Snow cornice
navcaq [NSU] `snow cornice, snow (formation) about to collapse'
navcite- `get caught in an avalanche'
Meterological events
Blizzard, snowstorm
pirta `blizzard, snowstorm'
pircir- `to blizzard'
pirtuk `blizzard, snowstorm'
Severe blizzard
cellallir-, cellarrlir- `to snow heavily'
pir(e)t(e)pag- `to blizzard severely'
pirrelvag- `to blizzard severely'

APPENDIX: An unordered list of English snow lexemes

avalanche, blizzard blowing, snow, dusting, flurry, frost, hail, hardpack, ice, lens igloo (Inuit iglu `house'), pingo (Inuit pingu(q) `ice lens'), powder, sleet, slushsnow, snow bank, snow cornice, snow fort, snow house, snow-man, snow-mixed-with-rain? , snowflake, snowstorm, others?

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H. Schiffman