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[1]

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 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:

(a) Are all fifteen lexeme meanings really 'snow'-meanings? That is,
do words with these meanings really count for you as words for snow?[2]

(b) There are some synonyms present--alternative lexemes with the same
meaning, like garbage vs. trash in English. Are you going to count them
separately, or together?

(c) If you decided to count synonyms together, will you also count
together both of the members of noun-verb pairs having basically the same
meaning? (The members are, technically speaking, separate lexemes since
partly idiosyncratic morphological changes mark the verbal forms, and must
therefore be listed separately in any truly informative dictionary, as
indeed Jacobson's dictionary does.)

(d) Following Jacobson, I've specially labelled those lexemes that only
occur in a small subpart of the Central Alaskan Yupik-speaking region. Are
you going to try to make counts for each separate dialect? If yes, you
will wonder if you really have enough information to do so. (You're not
alone in this-such information is difficult to compile, whether or not you
are a linguist, and also whether or not you are a native speaker of a

A. Snow particles

(1) Snowflake
qanuk 'snowflake'
qanir- 'to snow'
qanunge- 'to snow' [NUN]
qanugglir- 'to snow' [NUN]

(2) Frost
kaneq 'frost'
kaner- 'be frosty/frost sth.'

(3) Fine snow/rain particles
kanevvluk 'fine snow/rain particles
kanevcir- to get fine snow/rain particles

(4) Drifting particles
natquik 'drifting snow/etc'
natqu(v)igte- 'for snow/etc. to drift along ground'

(5) Clinging particles
nevluk 'clinging debris/
nevlugte- 'have clinging debris/...'lint/snow/dirt...'

B. Fallen snow

(6) 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'

(7) Soft, deep fallen snow on the ground
muruaneq 'soft deep snow'

(8) Crust on fallen snow
qetrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'
qerretrar- [NSU] 'for snow to crust'

(9) Fresh fallen snow on the ground
nutaryuk 'fresh snow' [HBC]

(10) Fallen snow floating on water
qanisqineq 'snow floating on water'

C. Snow formations

(11) Snow bank
qengaruk 'snow bank' [Y, HBC]

(12) Snow block
utvak 'snow carved in block'

(13) Snow cornice
navcaq [NSU] 'snow cornice, snow (formation) about to collapse'
navcite- 'get caught in an avalanche'

D. Meterological events

(14) Blizzard, snowstorm
pirta 'blizzard, snowstorm'
pircir- 'to blizzard'
pirtuk 'blizzard, snowstorm'

(15) 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

blowing snow
ice lens
igloo (Inuit iglu 'house')
pingo (Inuit pingu(q) 'ice lens')
snow bank
snow cornice
snow fort
snow house
snow man


1. Published by Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska,

2. 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.

3. Here are the dialect area abbreviations used:

NS Norton Sound dialect
NSU Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect
HBC Hooper Bay-Chevak
Y Yukon River area subdialect of General Central Alaskan Yupik dialect
NUN Nunivak

Browning's home page