Saturday, December 10, 2005

Lessons from the first snow

No, it wasn't technically the first snow. We'd had a few flurries earlier this fall. Once, a tiny bit had even remained on the ground for a few hours, before melting.

But yesterday was the first true snowstorm, signalling the start of the longest-seeming season in New England. No matter that the calendar says it's a few weeks yet before the official first day of winter. It's cold, it's dark, it's snowed over a foot: it's winter.

When it snows like that--long, and hard--whatever you'd thought to do that day (unless it was to stay home and rearrange your closets) is off.

So the first lesson of the storm is: surrender. You'd planned to do this, and then that, and then the other thing? You needed to do this, and then that, and then the other thing? There was a party Friday night that promised to be fun?

Forget about it. Not gonna happen. Choose something else--something that doesn't involve going outside at all.

And preferably something that doesn't involve electricity. Where I live there are a lot of tall trees, and so in every storm--rain or snow--there's a highly enhanced chance of losing it due to branches fallen on the power lines.

The second lesson of the storm, then, is: dependence. We rely on electricity for heat and light, for cooking, and for many kinds of entertainment (not to mention the solace, distraction, and demands of the computer). We are dependent on the snowplows that come to clear the streets--until then, there's no getting out, except on foot. Because of old back injuries, I am dependent on the guy who comes to plow the driveway, and this time he came late and managed to pile up little mountains in front of the garage door rather than away from it. Hmmm, we're going to have to have a little talk about that.

I didn't think of still another dependence until, early in the afternoon, I got a call from the agency that provides my mother's caretakers. "I bet you thought you'd be hearing from me" the head of scheduling said when I answered the phone. Stumped for a moment, I had no idea why she'd said that--till I realized that of course, the caregiver of the day was probably having trouble getting to my mother's apartment, in which my mother is relatively helpless (relatively, not absolutely any more) without her.

Yet another lesson of the storm is transcendence through transformation. Every landmark covered in white, including the huge evergreens that bow low under its weight; the world is an unfamiliar place of stark, monochrome beauty. It won't last long--the wind will blow the snow off the trees; dirt and dog pee will turn the snow on the ground mixed colors of gray, brown, and yellow. And it all will finally melt, revealing the straw-colored grass beneath.

But for now all this is in the future. For now everything is the whitest of whites.

For the children, since the snow came on a Friday, there's the abounding and surpassing joy of no school. For skiers, the knowledge that soon they can hit the slopes and encounter what in New England passes (or substitutes) for powder.

Back when I myself was in school--on non-snow days, that is--I was fascinated by the group of people known at the time as the Eskimo, and now as the Inuit. I learned of their ability to live in a harsh and challenging winter landscape (so like New Englanders, only to the nth degree), their inventiveness, even the wide variety of exotic games they played.

So I was wondering now: what of the legend of the hundred--or three hundred--Eskimo words for snow? Well, it turns out there are quite a few, although certainly not hundreds. Here are the root words. No doubt you'll find them useful:

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'

And now I do believe it's time to go out and play.


At 1:43 PM, December 10, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

I'm glad that you seem to enjoy the onset of winter. There's a lot of beauty to be experienced, yes.


Here in Utah we got our first genuine winter blast on Monday. That's the day we had our survey section meeting in West Valley City (in the Salt Lake City metro) and then toodled on up Parley's Canyon to our project on the other side of Park City.

Two and a half hours travel time. Distance: 23 miles. Blowing snow.

Tuesday we went up our normal route, through Provo Canyon. Clear skies. Get on site, set up our equipment, then started in on staking out water and sewer. The general contractor stopped by and watched us for a few minutes as we dug down a foot to get to the frozen ground of the road, then hammered a steel pin in as a pilot in order to set the flagged nails we have to use when the ground is frozen this hard.

"I sent my crews home, Tmj."

"That's cool - we'll be ahead of you tomorrow. We'll set another four hundred feet or so of the main, and the two water meters at the end, and call it."

"I sent them home because we can't get half our equipment started."

My second man has just had the fiberglass handle of his four pound sledge shatter in his hand.

"Did you know that the Maintenance Building thermometer reads -18F right now?"

I brushed the icecicles and frozen snot off of my frost mask and thought about that for a moment.

"I guess we can leave a little early, then. My second man is a little bummed, truth be told. He's not a winter kind of guy."

Yesterday I staked out four hundred feet of sewer line for blasting (we have a very rocky site). The drillers doubled the number of the holes, and loaded them heavy. When they fired the shot we watched a wedge of frozen dirt heave up as a monolithic mass, then settle right back into the road bed. We have eighteen inches of frost in the ground. More than that on north facing slopes.

We left early because the battery for our GPS base froze and burst a cell.

Mrs. Tmj thinks I'm nuts. I am inclined to agree.

Is it May yet?

At 2:41 PM, December 10, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Something people often forget when they hype the number of Eskimo/Inuit words for snow is that we have a lot of words for snow in English, too. Taking the rather broad definition used in the list you gave, I can already think of:


Can anyone think of more?

At 3:11 PM, December 10, 2005, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

In my town we have a word for fallen snow piled in drifts: Never.

I'm a fifth generation native, southern Californian who lives in a central coast beach town. We have more words for surf conditions than snow; gnarly, head high, beach break, sets, outside break.

I had momentary twinges of envy reading our Lady of the Apple's description until I recalled the very few times I have lived in snow country. The surrender is something we don't do well here. And, we don't really like being reminded of dependence; that just makes us aware of our dependence upon imported water.

People who move here from the east are always remarking on the fact that our homes are smaller. We remind them that that is because we spend a lot of time living outdoors. It usually takes them about three years to realize the truth of this. It usually happens when they go to a Thanksgiving Barbecue.

But, when we have some of our epic rainstorms we do fort up a little; the coloring books come out, the Risk deck is dealt and the marathon Monopoly game starts after breakfast. A break in the storm will means a walk to the creek to see how high the water is.

Enjoy your snow. We're off to the beach; a storm just passed through. I hear that the surf is head high with glassy walls; the bigger sets are breaking well outside. The longboarders are getting long rides on the south facers. Qujanaq for your post.

At 4:48 PM, December 10, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Well, motor 1560, let me just tell you that we have both: snow and surf. If you don't believe me, take a look at this oldie (read the last half of the linked post and you'll see what I'm talking about).


Yes, indeed, English has many words for snow and snowlike conditions (and just many words, period).

But I think the difference between the English and the Inuit snow words is that the latter are more for the actual physical qualities of the snow itself. I think that's because they had to ascertain what type of snow it was to know what traveling conditions would be like--sort of like an old-fashioned cross-country skier who had to decide what the snow quality was in order to figure out what type of wax to use for his skis.

In the case of the Inuit, knowing the exact conditions could make the difference between life and death.

At 5:34 PM, December 10, 2005, Blogger Cappy said...

Another important step with regard to the first snowfall, at least in Ohio is Remember how to drive in the snow!

At 5:47 PM, December 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup Cappy, at each first snow since I first got my drivers license, I've always headed to a big empty parking lot and practiced donuts and controlled skids to get my skills in tune for the season.

At 9:30 PM, December 10, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Skiers have lots of words for snow: powder, packed powder, granular, spring conditions. Language tends to expand into any vacuum, and to actually over-produce words and phrases for anything.

motor 1560, my son is just picking up his luggage this minute, having just flown in from LA to NH today, back for Christmas from an internship in film studies. I wonder what it will seem like this year.

At 6:14 AM, December 11, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

Sneaux (snow):
An Indiana acquaintance of mine uses the former, and I kinda like it. It was the typical ordeal driving home on Friday, since the retards who haven't the skills to drive in the snow still do so anyway. My commute was more than twice as long as usual.

Actually, having a fireplace in the living room, and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen of the "estate" help to ameliorate the situation...candles help too, and add to the ambiance.

I foolishly chose that over driving my garden tractor with the nifty snowblower attachment, since the right rear tire is flat. Foolish because it's only a slow leak, so with less effort than it took to shovel, I could've been riding that.

I am SO looking forward to retiring to Hawaii; if I feel the need to experience Winter conditions, I can fly somewhere else at my leisure. Or, just wait for those times when there's "sneaux" on Mauna Kea...

At 10:43 AM, December 11, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

neo-neocon said: "I think the difference between the English and the Inuit snow words is that the latter are more for the actual physical qualities of the snow itself."

Huh? Take another look at those lists again and see if you can justify that statement. If the English words don't describe actual physical qualities of the snow, then what, pray tell, do they describe? If you're walking from place to place it is crucial to know if you'll be walking through powder, hardpack, or slush, just as it is crucial to know if it'll be natquik, muruaneq, or qetrar. Is there a whiteout? That's really bad, better stay home.

I know that this topic is of absolutely no consequence, but still I feel compelled to argue about it.

At 12:26 PM, December 11, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

alex: Well, I guess I feel compelled to try to figure out what I meant by that :-).

I think what I meant is that nowadays, we just have to know whether it will be a blizzard or an ice storm (in which case, stay at home), or just a regular old snow (in which case, you can go out but be very careful).

The Inuit had to know more subtle qualities: hard, soft, wet, dry, powdery, crust on top, etc. etc., much more like a cross-country skier. And since there were no cellphones and 9/11, they had to be pretty sure they knew exactly what they were doing, or they were probably not going to survive.

The Inuit also had to know the qualities of snow in order to build igloos (which were not their permanent residences, but were temporary camps set up during winter hunting). At any rate, suffice to say their skills with snow were far greater than those of most of us, so their knowledge of it was greater.

Did the number of words reflect that? Apparently not. Did the quality and types of words reflect it? I think it did somewhat, but reasonable minds can differ on that :-).

At 8:19 PM, December 11, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9:57 PM, December 11, 2005, Blogger jeet said...

that was beautiful, thanks.

At 10:09 PM, December 11, 2005, Blogger Alex said...


You're not making much sense. A few points are in order:

1. English does not have hundreds of of words for snow, let alone thousands. I will believe that claim when you produce the list.

2. The link you left does not have "40 [terms] to a page with pictures." It's a scientific taxonomy of snow crystals. There aren't many terms for snow listed on those pages, and certainly none that a non-scientist would use. ("What's the forecast, Rob?" "Spatial dendrites, Chuck. Better get the plow!")

3. Tribal societies may have been far from perfect, but they certainly lived a hell of a lot more in tune with nature than we do. If you don't believe me, we can try an experiment: strand you and an Inuit on the tundra and see who survives longer.

At 11:37 PM, December 11, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Aha! The mystery is finally solved.

At 9:23 AM, December 12, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:51 AM, December 12, 2005, Blogger Alex said...


You're beginning to confuse me less and less. I'm starting to realize you're an idiot.

[Agglutinative languages] are primitive methods of expressing yourself, and very unsophisticated.

Finnish and Hungarian are agglutinative languages. So is Japanese. Though not strictly agglutinative, German, Dutch, and Swedish all have strong agglutinative tendencies as well. Ever seen those ridiculously long German nouns, like Rheindampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsstellvertreter ("Rhine steamship-company vice-captain")? Though you may like to assert it, there is nothing inherently "barbaric" about languages with long agglutinative words. Unless of course you'd like to argue there is something inherently barbaric about the Finns, the Hungarians, the Japanese, the Germans, the Dutch, and the Swedes.

I could simply propose that we leave the spaces out of English sentences and phrases, and et voila! English has millions of words for snow.

So why, again, is it "barbaric" to leave the spaces out, but "civilized" to keep them in? Oh yeah, I forgot -- you keep them in.

As for your list about scientific terms for snow crystals, my main beef was that it didn't have the "40 [terms] a page" that you claimed, but instead barely more than 10 terms total. That's really sloppy -- did you think that no one would follow your link? As for whether obscure scientific terms are admissible, sure, I'll be generous, you can count them. But that change much. It certainly doesn't make the rest of what you say correct.

It's a neat trick to get out the survival test conundrum by replacing yourself with a Navy Seal. My point was that you (or, at least, an average person, since I know nothing about your background) would die quite quickly in such conditions, whereas an average Inuit would survive quite nicely. Just because our society has certain highly trained survival specialists does nothing to contradict my point that, as a whole, the Inuit do in fact live far more "in tune" with nature than we do. Apologies if that phrase makes steam come out of your ears.

At 7:23 PM, December 12, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9:18 AM, December 13, 2005, Blogger pst314 said...

"Rheindampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsstellvertreter (Rhine steamship-company vice-captain)"

Gosh, then I guess the German must be incredibly rich in words for "captain" because I can just count the number of steamship companies and use each to construct a "different word for" captian. Feh.

At 12:55 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

This is getting tiresome because you continually miss my point. I have never made the case that Inuit has lots of words for snow, or, even if it did, that that would matter. In fact, if you look back in this very thread, you will see that I was arguing that English has about as many words for snow as Inuit. (The list of 100 Inuit words for snow that I linked to is a parody, in case that was lost on you.)

Frankly, I don't think that the number of words for snow (or anything else) in English or Inuit or German really matters a whole lot. I did, however, take offense at several of your claims.

1. That English has "hundreds" or "thousands" of words for snow. This is patently untrue. (It's equally untrue of Inuit but you weren't claiming that.)

2. That agglutinative languages are inherently barbaric. This is untrue and has the added bonus of being offensive to any Japanese, Finn, or Hungarian in the room. Indeed, many Germanic languages have agglutinative nouns, which is why I mentioned long German words. This point in particular pissed me off because it is so poorly supported and, frankly, ridiculous. And this more than anything led me to call you an idiot -- that you would believe that the grammatical structure of a language (shared by many disparate languages throughout the world) would offer a key insight into the barbarism of their disparate speakers. This, my friend, is stupid.

3. That the fact that some modern Americans could survive the tundra means that we are at least as good at wilderness survival as the Inuit. If you can believe it, I am not someone who would like to go back to the tribal lifestyle. However I will call a spade a spade, and the simple truth is that there are a few areas, like wilderness survival, where the Inuit have us beat. You seem to want to deny this to the end of the earth.

At 3:03 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:46 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Alex said...


I think you are right -- I should not have called you an idiot. I disagree with many if not most of your points, but all the same I should not have called you that. I apologize.

I don't usually get riled up in internet conversation, but some things you wrote struck a nerve. For instance, you wrote:

"Inuktitut, Inuit, whatever -- are agglutinative languages. They are primitive methods of expressing yourself, and very unsophisticated. They simply ram words together to make other words."

No you did not use the word "barbaric" here (though you did use it elsewhere), but the message is clear nonetheless -- you believe there is something very inferior about these languages.

I spent two years of my life studying linguistics, and I think there is very little support for that claim. Moreover, I used to hear it or something like it almost every day. They have a name for it -- it's called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and, in its most general statement, it holds that language circumscribes our ability to understand the world. Hence, more words for snow means the speaker experiences snow more richly. Fewer words and the speaker doesn't know a snowflake from an iceberg. The implication of this hypothesis is that languages like Inuit, which for historical reasons have smaller vocabularies, limit the range of thoughts that their speakers can have.

People take this hypothesis into the realm of grammar as well. I can't tell you how many people (non-linguists) have told me that American society is self-centered and materialistic because English puts the subject first in the sentence. So the silliness cuts both ways.

However, the conscensus in the linguistic community, which I agree with, is that all such theorizing is bunk. There appears to be only a tenuous link between cognition and language. If people don't have a special word for freshly-fallen-deep-snow, they simply say "freshly fallen deep snow" and leave it at that. Any language is capable of expressing any idea, though some do it in fewer words than others.

So I'll say to you now, there is nothing wrong with agglutinative languages. They are all over the world and they work as well as any others. Also, I think that if you were to speak a language with a smaller vocabulary than English you'd find that your thinking was not too badly impaired.

Now on to your other main point, that our society beats the pants off of Inuit society and all other traditional societies. For starters, I believe that technological and economic development improves our lives. If you don't think I'm sincere, you should know I'm currently getting an PhD in development economics, so I do take this stuff seriously. However, it is just plain wrong to state categorically that we do everything better. In general, technological progress breeds dependence. When the technology fails, we are far more helpless than before. That's not to say it's a bad thing on balance, but there are certainly tradeoffs. Traditional societies did some things very well, better than we do. But I'll take modern society, thank you very much, and nowadays many people from traditional societies would agree (i.e. Inuits on snowmobiles).

So I'll try to keep from calling people names, and I hope in the future you will hesitate before making broad statements about the worthlessness of traditional societies, or denegrating the languages of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

At 12:40 AM, December 14, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:00 AM, December 14, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

And now we are friends.

Well no, not quite yet. I admitted I was wrong to call you names. So far you have admitted you were wrong about nothing, and apologized for nothing. As a start, do you think you could admit you were wrong to say that agglutinative languages are "primative" and "unsophisticated"? I think that would be a bare minimum to salvage my respect for you.

Take a lesson from the case of Tookie Williams, and realize that there can be no redemption without admission of wrongdoing.

At 9:01 PM, December 14, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:57 AM, December 15, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Hmmm. You have claimed that a class of languages including Korean, Finnish, Turkish, Japanese, and Hungarian, spoken by over 950 million people on every inhabited continent except Australia, is inherently inferior to other languages. You haven’t offered much evidence for your claim of inferiority, and indeed I seriously doubt whether you knew most of those languages were agglutinative when you made your claim. Do you really have a grand unified theory of agglutinative language inferiority, or did you speak without much knowledge of the subject and now you are being stubborn and sticking to your guns? My guess is the latter, and it’s not becoming.

For the record, I disagree with many friends on many topics. However, my friends usually have well-thought-out reasons behind their beliefs, reasons I can understand even if I don’t agree with them. And my friends also know when to admit they are wrong (as, I hope, do I).

So please, either give me a spirited defense of why, say, Japanese is an inferior language, or be an adult and admit you were wrong.

If you can’t do either, consider me to have passed on your offer.

At 10:21 AM, December 15, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:02 PM, December 15, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

One last gasp since we both seem to love this so much. The full quote is:

Inuktitut, Inuit, whatever -- are agglutinative languages. They are primitive methods of expressing yourself, and very unsophisticated. They simply ram words together to make other words. [emphasis mine]

The strong implication here is that you believe these languages to be inferior by virtue of their agglutinative nature. Why else bring up agglutination in the first place, or criticize them for "ramming" words together? I actually think I should get an A+ for assuming you meant that Inuit is unsophisticated because it is agglutinative. If that's not what you meant, the rest of your quote makes no sense.

And oh, when your best comeback is to parse the spelling errors of your opponents, this is a bad sign for your core arguments.

It's been fun, Sippican.

At 9:20 PM, December 15, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Sippican: I doubt very much anyone is reading this thread anymore, but I thought I'd tweak it just a bit.

I mentioned in the original post, way back when, that I was fascinated in my school days by the Eskimo/Inuit. I didn't mention that I read a great deal about them over a fairly long period of time, and became rather knowledgeable (book learning only, of course) about their society. And although I'm not one of those Rousseauvian-noble-savage folks by any means (in fact, one of these days I plan a post on how much harm I think Rousseau's point of view has caused), I do have a deep and abiding respect for traditional Inuit culture--a culture which, as you so rightly point out, has changed immeasurably in the last hundred years.

I have no special knowledge of the language, but one thing I can say is that the Inuits were among the most inventive people of all time, prior to mechanized Western culture. The fact that they managed to exist in such a tremendously challenging and harsh environment is a testament to human ingenuity. They were incredible at fashioning gadgets that were both functional and beautiful:

The improvising abilities of Inuit are well known today, and many Inuit inventions are considered technological masterpieces. The domed snowhouse igloo, the toggling harpoon head and the kayak are noteworthy examples.

I could go on at some length, but I think I'll stop now. Most likely no one's reading this anyway :-).

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