Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Saturday, 18 October 2008 14:54 UK

Why you should avoid 'mingqutnguaq'


Yup'ik Eskimo Grant Kashatok speaks about his life on ice in Newtok, Alaska

By Stephen Chittenden
BBC News, Newtok, Alaska

The number of Eskimo words for snow has long been a point of debate.

In the Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary published by the Native Language Centre at the University of Alaska, and found in schools throughout Alaska's Yukon Delta, there are 37 ways of referring to it.

When snow falls from the sky, an Eskimo can say "it's snowing" in four different ways: aniu, cellallir, ganir or qanunge.

Once the snow is on the ground, things can get more complicated. Light snow is kannevvluk, soft and deep snow is muruaneq and drifting snow is called natquik.

Crusted snow, corniced snow and fresh snow all have their own word too.


Grant Kashatok, the principal at Newtok school, explains one reason there are so many words for snow.

"When we say a word, instead of saying 'That is not safe snow!' we say one word and people know if it's safe or not."

Cold is very good because it means we will have safe conditions... to cross the rivers
Grant Kashatok, Newtok School

If you are out hiking and an Eskimo shouts "Mingqutnguaq!" you should stop immediately. It means "rotten ice", and you could be about to fall through the ice.

For the same reasons, Eskimos like Grant Kashatok prefer the cold to warm weather,

"Cold is very good because it means we will have safe conditions... to cross the rivers," he says.

Autumn can be a dangerous time in Alaska. While they wait for the ice to harden, children can be tempted to play on frozen pools before it is thick enough to bear their weight.

Winter activity

Once winter takes grip on Alaska, the land, rivers and seas all freeze, opening up the interior and allowing ice roads to be built across the tundra which gives access for hunting.

Stanley Tom, the tribal leader in Newtok, says it is an essential part of their livelihood.

"We have to have ice," he says. "We are called Qaluyarmiut, the dip-net people. We do under-ice netting, catching whitefish."

The winter season has been given human characteristics and a harsh winter is male, or angun, and if it is milder it is described as arnaq, the Yup'ik word for female.

There are three Yup'ik languages: Central, Siberian and Alutiiq.

There are also two other native languages apart from Yup'ik: Inupiat and Aleut, and that means plenty of ways of referring to snow and ice.

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