Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

The main colour of the Arctic

Why do indigenous peoples of the North have dozens of words for snow

9 october 2022

The first snow has begun to fall in the Arctic, a phrase that can only be uttered by someone whose ancestors have not lived for centuries in this harsh, snowy land. Representatives of the indigenous peoples of the North will ask for clarification as to which snow they are talking about. After all, snow made of large snowflakes is called one word, while dense snow that sweeps in snowdrifts is called another. Moreover, different words are used both for snow that is still falling and for snow that has already fallen to the ground. And no wonder: describing snow conditions correctly for Arctic reindeer herders and hunters is a matter of survival.

Dense ice can make a quick trip home, but loose, crumbly snow can be a serious obstacle. A blizzard that has begun can kill a man, and a heavy snowfall can deprive the reindeer of food. That is why there are dozens of words in the indigenous languages of the North that accurately convey the state of snow. Thus, the Russian-Even Dictionary by Vera Tsintsius and Lyubov Rishes lists 24 words describing snow: it can be deep or surface, loose or dense, lying on trees or in the mountains—there are separate words for all these cases.

There is also a whole palette of names in the Even language to describe the colour of the snow. The Evens spend most of their lives in a black and white world of snow-covered expanses, so their language has only five words for colours—churunya ('yellow'), hulanya ('red') and chulbanya ('dark blue,' 'blue' or 'green'), hakarin ('black') and nyobati ('white'). There are, however, many more variations in the language for white than for the other four colours. If the Evens want, for example, to describe the whiteness of the first snow, they say burkunyagchin, for the evening snow they use the word hisechirep imanragchin, and the snow that looks like yagel is called nyamalragchin.

Other northern languages also have this feature: the Chukchi, for example, used to have one word for red, green and orange, but have as many as 17 words for shades of white. And there are about 40 'snow' words in total in their language. Other northern peoples are not far behind: the Sami have at least 180 terms for snow and ice, according to Norwegian philologists. They are all used to describe the threats that the location, colour, transparency or mobility of these cold substances may pose to humans.

Even children's Arctic fairy tales remind us that snow can become a source of danger at any time. Thus, in the Evenki tales The Wise Old Man and The Old Bear, snow acts as a dangerous trap for people to fall into. And a Yukaghir tale The Hunter and the White Old Man tells how three men emerged from a huge snowball and froze a hunter who was setting traps on other people's land.

Snow is so important in the lives of northern peoples that it features in countless proverbs and sayings. Yakuts, for example, mention snow when they want to save themselves from possible trouble. 'Hayin ohsunna' ('Fenced oneself in with a snow bank'), they say. Describing a man who has suffered a setback and is left with bare hands, one pronounces 'Haary ytyhan haalbyt' ('Left with snow in a handful'). Of the poor, miserable man they would say, 'Uu-haar ohoҕostooh' ('With guts filled with water and snow'). The image of snow, which can melt at any moment, is also used to describe a talkative man, a chatterbox—'Uu-haar tyllaah' ('His words are like water and snow').

Snow is also mentioned in Yakut proverbs about family relations: 'Өtөҕүn haardaabyt' ('Snow has been removed from his former dwelling') is said about a man who renewed his relationship with his abandoned mistress. Snow can act as a measure—'Halyҥ buruyuҥ haar haya saҕa' ('The magnitude of (your) transgression is equal to a snow mountain'). And in the past, it was also the main measure of age: when a Yakut asked 'How much snow has fallen on you?', the question meant 'How old are you?'

Snow is also present in the ornaments used to decorate the clothing and utensils of the peoples of the North. For instance, the Evenki use two frequently used colours, blue and white, symbols of purity and harsh trials. And with the Khanty and Mansi, white, the colour of snow, in traditional ornaments, symbolises good luck, because snow is a source not only of anxiety but also of hope for the peoples of the Arctic.

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