Unsurprisingly for the time of year, snow is falling with a vengeance in many parts of the northern hemisphere. It may not lie “deep and crisp and even” (in the words of the carol “Good King Wenceslas”), but it is wonderfully picturesque. It used to be thought that the Eskimos (today more properly known as the Inuit) had more words for snow than speakers of other languages. American linguists Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir argued that not only does a people’s environment shape their language, but language shapes environment or the way people think about their environment.
No surprise, then, if the Inuit had lots of words for snow. However, it seems that’s not the case. Inuit languages make extensive use of morphemes – bits of words that can be added to a root word to vary its meaning. Linguists have found 15 Inuit root words relating to snow and snowy phenomena, to which the use of morphemes gives greater precision.
The root words describe snow particles (snowflakes, rainy snow, drifting particles, clinging particles), fallen snow (snow on the ground, soft deep snow, crust on fallen snow, fresh snow, snow floating on water), snow formations (snow bank, snow block, snow cornice), and meteorological events (snowstorm, blizzard, severe blizzard).
Why the flurry of interest? This morning delicate, gossamer, fluffy, balletic snow was falling, choreographed by an unseen hand and pirouetting gracefully before coming to rest. I don’t know what the Inuit word for that kind of snow is, but it sure was a joy shifting it!