Snow Fact #6 – Words of Snow

Have you ever heard of “pyry”, “tuisku” or “loska”?

Man called Franz Boas is well known for his Handbook of American Indian Languages, published in 1911. In this little book he commented on Inuit words for snow, and his writings have fueled a century long debate ever since. The Inuits are commonly referred as Eskimos and even the name “Eskimo” is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this name is nowadays considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean “eater of raw meat.”

The idea that Inuits have a hundred words for snow quickly entered the popular sphere leading to a rumbling debate on the truth of the claim owing to the grammatical peculiarity of native american languages. Most linguist believed for a long time that Boas was wrong and he was accused of journalistic exaggeration. Some people even gone as far as to name it the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

Almost hundred year after the Boas claim, recent studies have suggested that Eskimos do in fact have many more words for snow than in English. The dialect spoken in Nunavik, Canada, for example has at least 53 separate words including ‘pukak’ to refer to crystal-like snow that looks like salt; ‘matsaaruti’ meaning wet snow to ice a sleigh’s runners; and ‘qanik’ to refer to falling snow.

Most interesting part about the many words of snow is that this phenomenon isn’t so rare after all. It is not just the Eskimo languages that have colorful terms to describe their frosty surroundings: The Sami people, who live in the northern tips of Finland, rest of Scandinavia and Russia, use at least 180 words related to snow and ice. And in Finnish language we have over 50 words as well! For example “pyry” is when lot of snow is “showering” from the sky, Finns call it “loska” when the snow is really wet, and “tuisku” is what we get when you add “pyry” and lot of wind. 

Why Finns, Sami-people or Inuits have so many different words just for snow then? Answer is simple: snow and the weather have always been vital part for these people and for that it’s been important to accurately communicate about it. You know, it could have been a matter of life and death if you’ve gone outside hunting when it’s a real “myräkkä” out there and you can’t understand it’s the “railo” your friend is trying to warn you about. Do you want to learn some more words? Here is a simple and easy to read list for you!

This was the 6th fact of our Snow Facts. New snow is fact coming out every monday! Stay tuned and remember to follow our Facebook-page so you get notified when next snow packed fact comes out.




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