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Fifty Shades of Snow in Greenland: the Inuits Have indeed 50 Words for Different Types of Snow, Ice, and Much More!

Laurent Lefèvre

Do you speak Greenlandic? Official language of the Arctic White Island since 2009, Greenlandic is part of the Inuit languages (a branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family) also spoken in Alaska and the Canadian Far North. Assembling words to form new ones, sometimes very long, these agglutinative languages have a very rich vocabulary to distinguish the multiple shades of snow, ice, and the different types of seals.

Lost in the hostile environment of the Arctic, the mastery of an Inuit language like Greenlandic allows you to locate, discern and name the different holes in the sea ice: the one built by a seal (a kikkuleq) or by a narwhal (the ammatitaq), the sea ice which is enlarging (an aaguppoq) or which is used by the seal to breathe and to come to the surface, the well-named kikkitiq. In Greenlandic, thanks to a relatively short word (aallaaniagaq), you can signal to your traveling companion that: there is an animal (seal or sea mammal) in a hole in the sea ice.

Used by the vast majority of the island’s inhabitants, Greenlandic (about 50,000 speakers) is divided into three dialects: Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic in the video below), the main one, which is the official language since 2009 (about 44 000 speakers who live on the west coast of Greenland); Tunumiisut (Tunumiit or East Greenlandic in the video) spoken by about 3,000 people in the Ammassalik district, around the town of Tasiilaq (East Greenland coast) and Inuktun (Thule dialect, Inughuit Greenlandic in the video) used by a few communities of Inughuit (about 1,000 speakers) around the town of Qaanaaq (Thule), in the northwest of the island.

Listen and practice pronouncing the three Greenlandic dialects.

Before leaving the igloo, put on your anorak to drive the kayak!

A majority of the population of Greenland speaks both Danish and Greenlandic (Kalaallisut). Both languages have been used in public affairs since the establishment of self-government in 1979, but Danish remains predominant in administration, media and education. Most children are taught Greenlandic, English, and Danish.

Kayak, anorak (forged from the words qajaq meaning boat” and annoraaqclothing), umiak (a paddle-powered boat made of seal skins used for transportation), and nunatak (a rock or mountain protruding from an area of ice or snow) are Greenlandic words that have been directly adopted into English and other languages, including French. Originating in the dialect of the Inuit of Canada, the word iglo(o) (iglu meaning house in Inuktitut) appears in many European, Asian, and African languages.

The longest word

Polysynthetic, the Inuit languages are rich in very long words that can correspond to whole sentences in other less synthetic languages. According to Artictoday, the longest word in Greenlandic would be:


Composed of 92 letters, this word means: once again, they tried to build a radio station, but apparently it is still in the planning stage
. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, the longest word in English, has only 45 letters.

Listen to the longest word in Greenlandic: can other languages compete?

Based on this principle, Greenlandic has many terms (referenced in the Kalaallisut and Inuktun dialects in this article) for various types of ice such as aniqsiq (a floating slab that has broken away from the ice pack and is emerging from a fjord), aakkarneq (the melting of the sea ice by the action of the current or time), ammavoq (a passage through the sea ice navigable by boat), sikuiuitsoq (the sea ice that does not melt), sikoqannginnersaq (an ice-free zone inside the pack ice after [a] break-up)…

“These words often have a nominal base (noun) associated with a process (verbal action), which is called an aspect, explains linguist Ivani Fusellier-Souza. Greenlandic is an aspectual language that morphologically marks (in the word) the manner, trajectory, activity or state of an action, a process. For example, aniqsiq is a noun (floating plate) with two processes: to detach from the ice pack and to exit a fjord.

Dans le fjord d’Ilulissat (baie de Disko, côte ouest du Groenland), où la fonte du glacier s’accélère, neige, eau et glace se confondent. Langue officielle de l’île depuis 2009, le groenlandais possède de nombreux mots pour les différentier.
In the Ilulissat fjord (Disko Bay, west coast of Greenland) where the melting of the glacier is accelerating,
snow, water, and ice merge. Greenlandic, the official language of the island since 2009, has many words to distinguish them.

Different terms to distinguish types of snow

“The physical environment leaves its mark on every culture, says Sami linguist Ole Henrik Magga, who has studied the diversity of Sami for reindeer, snow, and iceLike the Sami living in Lapland (see Henrik, a Sami reindeer herder in Lapland), the Inuit have a long and intimate relationship with the Arctic environment. 

To distinguish the different types of snow or snow-related events, the Inuit would have at least 50 words in their languages (53 in Inuktitut, according to this Washington Post article, and 40 in Greenlandic, according to a count), or even more (read Do Inuits really have 50 words for snow?).

This figure is subject to debate and varies according to specialists who count all the lexemes qualifying snow or only the root words. But without any dispute, we find in Greenlandic the terms qaniit (the snow that is floating down) and qanniliuppaa (it started snowing while he/she was taken by surprise by the snow) or in Inuktitut, the words matsaaruti (wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners) and pukak (the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt)… which have no equivalent in English or other idioms.

Un phoque (probablement un uuttoq) qui semble perdu sur ce bout d’iceberg à la dérive.
This seal (probably an uuttoq) seems lost on this drifting iceberg .

On the menu of the day: qaqquaq (boiled seal liver) and qajulaat (seal soup with crowberries)

Like the Sami who have more than 1,000 terms to distinguish the different types of reindeer, the vocabulary of the Inuit concerning the seals is very rich – hunted for its meat, its skin, its fat which was used for lighting or cooking, the animal feeds their sayings, their rituals and their myths, as their beliefs around the bearded seal (taqammuaq in Greenlandic).

For hunting or culinary purposes, the words angusaq (seal shot, previously killed with a spear and brought home), qaattaq (caught in a net), qanitippaa (he/she finds him/herself suddenly very close to a seal, which appears right next to him/her), qaqquaq (dried boiled seal liver) and qajulaat (seal soup made from crowberries) were forged in Greenlandic. 

From their kayak or on a dog sledding expedition, the Inuit of Greenland can distinguish and name the seal [noun] that has crawled up on [manner] the ice and which cannot find its way back into the water (the paarnguliaq), the animal [noun] lying [state] on ice (a pattingatiq) or an ice floe or a rock (the qassimasoq), crawling [manner] on sea ice (a paarmuliaq), or the one that is sunbathing itself [state] on the ice on the ice (the uuttoq), as happy as a colt in clover!

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