a different shade of white


In 1911, Franz Boas, an anthropologist who spent years living among the Inuit, published The Mind of Primitive Man. Through it, Boas not only revolutionized anthropology, but sparked a debate that has lasted over a century. Boas famously suggested that the Inuit have dozens, if not hundreds, of different names for snow. Linguists argue back and forth the merits of the claim, some saying that added suffixes to root words are simply individual flourishes while others assert that, yes, each new permutation is, indeed, a separate and distinct word.

Which leads me to my question and my subject…Would the Inuit consider a heavy frost snow?

There was fog in the early morning hours on Wednesday; fog and a whole lot of cold. Combined, the two create what I’ve always considered hoar frost, a consideration that is at least mostly accurate.

frosted wild teasel

frosted wild teasel

As it turns out, there are six different recognized types of frost – two of which, rime and black, are subject to debate – one of which is hoar. Well, sort of “one of which”. See, there are actually four different types of hoar frost: air, surface, crevasse and depth. Air hoar is the type of frost we experienced today. Tangentially, hoar is a word of Old English derivation, an adjective meaning “showing signs of old age”; in this case, conceivably, it is the fringe of white that conveys senility.

The world seems to froth with it, this thick confection of frozen air. It shrouds tree limbs, coats fences, cars and outbuildings and accumulates on the individual hairs and feathers of the animals that spend a good deal of their time out of shelter.

In the bottom land below our house, the plants and grasses were still, bowed under their burden of frost. The wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), an invasive from North Africa and Eurasia that has been here so long that it seems native, carried its coat with grace.

Later, though it never truly grew warm even for this time of year, the rising sun brushed so much frost from tree limbs that, under the canopy, it fell as thick as snow.

So, can anyone tell me? Does anyone know? Make it official…does frost translate to snow?


4 thoughts on “a different shade of white

  1. Okie, we got a response about the language spoken by the Inuits of Nunavik, QC, CA regarding frost words (from Marc-Antoine Mahieu, professor of Inuktitut at INALCO from Paris):

    “There is no way to ask the question of how many words are there in Inuktitut for any other word. There’s an infinite potential for words describing frost because speakers build the words as they speak, following the rules. There is a principal and unlimited prefix and suffix possibilities.

    If we reformulate the question by asking “How many principals are there for frost in Inuktitut?”, the answer is “something around half a dozen”.But only the first 3 or 4 are commonly used. We state some in the following list:

    – ilu : frost on the windows, glasses, clothing and boots
    – kaniq, plural kaniit : frost crystals that fall from the sky
    – kanirjuk, plural kanirjuit : frost crystals on the ground
    – karnguti, plural karngutiit : frost needles on the icy surface
    – kataga(a)rjuk, plural kataga(a)rjuit : frost crystals that fall off the roof of the house or the window of the snow house (igloo)
    – manulik : frost that forms on the fur collar from breathing
    – qakurnaq : frost forming a white blanket on the ground

    For the “freeze” (quaq) and its different states, there are many more words.


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