Franz Boas and Inuktitut Terminology for Ice and Snow: From the Emergence of the Field to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”

  • Igor KrupnikEmail author
  • Ludger Müller-Wille


Franz Boas, the “founding father” of North American anthropology, has long been credited with many pioneer contributions to the field of Arctic anthropology, as a result of his first and only fieldwork among the Inuit on Baffin Island, following the First International Polar Year 1882–1883. In this new “polar year” the SIKU project has initiated several studies of the Inuit terminology for sea ice and snow, including in the areas of Baffin Island once surveyed by Boas, as well as in the nearby regions of Nunavut, Nunavik, Labrador, and Greenland. Also, in the past decade the story of Boas’ fieldwork on Baffin Island has become known in full, in diaries, personal letters, and field notes. This chapter capitalizes on these new sources: it examines Boas’ knowledge of the Inuit terminology for sea ice and snow and its value to current discussion about language, indigenous knowledge, the Inuit, and beyond. It also addresses the so-called Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax debate of the past decades that misconstrues Boas’ use of the Inuit terms and the analysis of the contemporary Inuit ice and snow vocabulary.


Franz Boas Inuktitut Baffin Island Ice and snow terminology 



We are grateful to our colleagues, Claudio Aporta, Ernest S. Burch, Jr., Louis-Jacques Dorais, Ives Goddard, and Michael Krauss for many valuable comments to the first draft of this chapter. Mark Halpern was a source of inspiration on many issues related to the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” debate. Matthew Sturm shared with us his lexicon of the Inuit/Inupiaq terms for snow collected among knowledgeable elders in Barrow, Alaska; and Noel Broadbent shared and translated the Swedish list of ice terms from Edlund’s dissertation (2000). Our colleagues in the SIKU project – Claudio Aporta, Ron Brower, Gita Laidler, and Pierre Taverniers – kindly offered Inuit ice vocabularies they collected in 2003–2008 in Igloolik, Barrow, Pangnirtung, and Qeqertaq, respectively, for our comparative analysis with Franz Boas’ 1894 lexicon. All shortcomings in interpreting the Inuit knowledge or ice and snow are of our own.


  1. Anonymous. N.d. Glossary (of) Snow and Avalanches. Working group (of the) European Avalanche Forecasting Services. WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, Davos, Switzerland. (Accessed May 9, 2009).
  2. Armstrong, T. 1958. Illustrated ice glossary. Pt. 2. Polar Record 9(59): 90–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aporta, C. 2003. Old Routes, New Trails: Contemporary Inuit Travel and Orienting in Igloolik, Nunavut. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, Edmonton.Google Scholar
  4. Berman, J. 2001. Unpublished Materials of Franz Boas and George Hunt: A Record of 45 Years of Collaboration. Gateways: Exploring the Legacy of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1897–1902. Contributions to Circumpolar Anthropology 1. I. Krupnik and W.W. Fitzhugh (eds.), Washington: Arctic Studies Center, pp.181–213.Google Scholar
  5. Boas, F. 1881. Beiträge zur Erkenntnis der Farbe des Wassers. Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Kiel, Germany. Kiel: Schmidt & Klaunig.Google Scholar
  6. Boas, F. 1885. Baffin-Land. Geographische Ergebnisse einer in den Jahren 1883 und 1884ausgeführten Forschungsreise. Petermanns Mitteilungen, 80: 1–100. Ergänzungsheft.Gotha: Justus Perthes.Google Scholar
  7. Boas, F. 1888. The Central Eskimo. Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology 1884–1885:399–675. Washington: Bureau of Ethnology (Reprint 1964. Toronto: Coles).Google Scholar
  8. Boas, F. 1894. Der Eskimo-Dialekt des Cumberland-Sundes. Mittheilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien, Band XXIV (Neue Folge, Vol. XIV): 97–114. Alfred Hölder, Wien.Google Scholar
  9. Boas, F. 1911. Introduction. In Handbook of American Indian Languages. Part 1. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40: 1–84. B. Franz (ed.), Washington: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  10. Brower, R., Jr. 2008. (Barrow) Inupiaq snow terminology. In Light Snow, Deep for Walking. M. Sanchez, Weekend America, January 12. (Accessed April 27, 2009).
  11. Cole, D. and Müller-Wille., L. 1984. Franz Boas’ expedition to Baffin Island, 1883–1884. Etudes/Inuit/Studies 8(1): 37–63.Google Scholar
  12. De Reuse, W. 1994. Eskimo Words for ‘Snow,’ ‘Ice,’ etc. Linguist List 5.1293 (Accessed April 26, 2009 at
  13. Derose, S.J. 1999/2005. Eskimo Words for Snow. (Accessed June 2, 2009)
  14. Dorais, Louis-Jacques 1996. La parole inuit. Langue, culture et société dans l’Arctique nord-américain. Louvain-Paris: Peeters Press.Google Scholar
  15. Edlund, A.-C. 2000. Sälen och jägaren. De bottniska jägarnas begreppssystem för säl ur ett kognitivt perspektiv. Norrlands Universitetsförlag, Umeå.Google Scholar
  16. Erdmann, F. (ed.), 1864, 1866. Eskimoisches Wörterbuch gesammelt von Missionaren in Labrador, revidirt und herausgegeben von Friedrich Erdmann. Erster Theil: Eskimoisch-Deutsch (1864, 350 pp.), Deutsch-Eskimoisch, Zweiter Theil (1866, 242 pp.). Ernst Moritz Monse, Budissin [Bautzen].Google Scholar
  17. Fayhee, J.M. 2009. Snow by Any Other Name. Mountain Gazette 151.
  18. Fortescue, M. 1984. West Greenlandic. London, etc: Groom Helm.Google Scholar
  19. Fortescue, M. 1991. I’nuktun, An introduction to the language of Qaanaaq, Thule. Institut for Eskimologi publication series 15. Copenhagen.Google Scholar
  20. Freeman, M.M.R. 1984. Franz Boas on baffin island: A centennial observed. (In Boas footsteps: 100 years of Inuit anthropopology). Études/Inuit/Studies 8(1): 11–12.Google Scholar
  21. Halpern, M. 2008. Language and Human Nature. Transaction Publications.Google Scholar
  22. Harper, K. 2008. The collaboration of James Mutch and Franz Boas, 1883–1922. Études/Inuit/Studies 32(2): 53–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jacobson, S.A. 1984. Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary. Fairbanks: Native Language Center.Google Scholar
  24. Kaplan, L. 2003. Inuit snow terms: How many and what does it mean? In Building Capacity in Arctic Societies: Dynamics and shifting perspectives. Proceedings from the 2nd IPSSAS Seminar. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada: May 26–June 6, 2003. F. Trudel (ed.), Montreal: CIERRA. Facultés sciences sociales Université Laval.Google Scholar
  25. Kaplan, L. 2005/2008. Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What does it Mean? (Accessed April 26, 2009).
  26. Kleinschmidt, S. 1851. Grammatik der grönländischen Sprache mit teilweisem Einschluss des Labradordialektes. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co, (Reprint: Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung 1968).Google Scholar
  27. Kleinschmidt, S. 1871. Den grønlandske Ordbog. København: Louis Kleins Bogtrykkeri.Google Scholar
  28. Krupnik, I. 2003. Fourth International Polar Year. Northern Notes Fall, 6–7.Google Scholar
  29. Krupnik, I., Bravo, M., Csonka, Y., Hovelsrud-Broda, G., Müller-Wille, L., Poppel, B., Schweitzer, P., and Sörlin., S. 2005. Social sciences and humanities in the International Polar Year 2007–2008: An integrating mission. Arctic 58(1): 91–97.Google Scholar
  30. Laidler, G.J. 2007. Ice, Through Inuit Eyes: Characterizing the Importance of Sea Ice Processes, Use and Change Around Three Nunavut Commuties. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Georgraphy, University of Toronto (Accessed July 14, 2009 at
  31. Laidler, G.J., Dialla, A., and Joamie., E. 2008. Human geographies of sea ice: Freeze/thaw processes around Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada. Polar Record 44(231): 335–361.Google Scholar
  32. Liberman, M., 2003. 88 English Words from Snow. Language Log December 7, 2003 (Accessed April 26, 2009 –
  33. Liberman, M. 2006. The Proper Treatment of Snowclones in Ordinary English. Language Log, February 4, 2006 – Accessed April 26, 2009
  34. Lowe, R. 1983. Kangiryuarmiut Uqauhingita Numiktittitdjutingit. Basic Kangiryarmiut Eskimo Dictionary. Published by the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement. Inuvik, Canada.Google Scholar
  35. Lowe, R. 1984. Siglit Inuvialuit Uqausiita Kipuktirutait. Basic Siglit Inuvialuit Eskimo Dictionary. Published by the Committee for Original Peoples Entitlement. Inuvik, Canada.Google Scholar
  36. Magga, O.H. 2006. Diversity in Saami terminology for reindeer, snow, and ice. International Social Science Journal 58(187): 25–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Martin, L. 1986. Eskimo words for snow: A case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example. American Anthropologist 88(2): 418–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Mergen, B. 1997. Snow in America. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  39. Muldrew, K. 1997/2000. A Lexicon of Snow. (Accessed May 10, 2009).
  40. Müller-Wille, L. 1985. Snow and Ice in Inuit Place Names in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. In 43rd Eastern Snow Conference Proceedings 1984, pp. 55–57. Department of Geography, Montréal: McGill University.Google Scholar
  41. Müller-Wille, L. 2008. Franz Boas and the Inuit. Études/Inuit/Studies 32(2): 9–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Müller-Wille, L. 2009. Franz Boas’ Beitrag zur Ethnologie der Inuit: Methodik und Ansätze zwischen Geographie und Völkerkunde. In Franz Boas (1858–1942). Wissenschaft, Politik, Mobilität. H.-W. Schmuhl (ed.), Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 303–310.Google Scholar
  43. Müller-Wille, L., (ed.) 1998. Franz Boas among the Inuit of Baffin Island, 1883–1884: Journals and Letters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  44. Müller-Wille, L. and Gieseking, B. (eds.), 2008. Bei Inuit und Walfängern auf Baffin-Land (1883/1884). Das arktische Tagebuch des Wilhelm Weike. (Mindener Beiträge, Band 30). Minden: Mindener Geschichtsverein.Google Scholar
  45. Müller-Wille, L. and Weber, L. 1983. Inuit Place Name Inventory of Northeastern Québec-Labrador. Marburger Geographische Schriften 89/McGill Subarctic Research Papers 37: 151–222.Google Scholar
  46. Müller-Wille, L. and Weber Müller-Wille, L. 2006. Inuit geographical knowledge one hundred years apart: Place names in Tinijjuarvik (Cumberland Sound), Nunavut. In Inuit Studies in an Era of Globalization. P. Stern and L. Stevenson (eds.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 217–229.Google Scholar
  47. Murray, S.O. 1987. Snowing canonical texts. American Anthropologists 89(2): 443–444.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Murzaev, E.M. 1984. Slovar’ narodnykh geograficheskikh terminov (Glossary of folk geographic terms). Moscow: Mysl Publishers.Google Scholar
  49. Peck, E.J. Rev. 1925. Eskimo-English Dictionary. (Compiled from Erdman’s Eskimo-German Edition 1864 A.D.). Published by the Church of the Ascension Thank-Offering Mission Fund, Hamilton. Toronto.Google Scholar
  50. Petitot, É. 1876. Vocabulaire francaise-esquimau. Paris: Ernest Leroux.Google Scholar
  51. Pullum, G. 1989. “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7(2): 275–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Pullum, G. 1990. “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” Lingua Franca 1: 28–29.Google Scholar
  53. Pullum, G. 1991a. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent essays on the Study of Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  54. Pullum, G. 1991b. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. In The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. New York: Macmillan Publishing, pp. 33–38.Google Scholar
  55. Pullum, G. 1994. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Probable Cause: A Literary Review Winter: 3–6.Google Scholar
  56. Pullum, G. 1996. 100 Wörter für Schnee – der grosse Eskimo-Bluff. Weltwoche Supplement. March, 22–25.Google Scholar
  57. Pullum, G. 2003. Bleached conditionals. Language Log (October 21) (Accessed April 26, 2009).
  58. Pullum, G. 2004. Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit Snow Words: A Clarification. Language Log, January 30, (Accessed April 26, 2009)
  59. Rink, H.J. 1866. Eskimoiske Eventyr og Sagn: oversatte efter de indfødte Fortælleres Opskrifter og Meddelelser af H. Rink. København: C. A. Reitzel Boghandel.Google Scholar
  60. Rink, H.J. 1871. Eskimoiske Eventyr og Sagn: Supplement indeholdene et tillage om eskimoerne, deres kulturtrin og ovrige eiendommeligheder samt formodede herkomst. København: C.A. Reitzels Boghandel.Google Scholar
  61. Rink, H. 1875. Eskimo with a Sketch of Their Habits, Religion, Language and Other Peculiarities. Translated from the Danish by the author. R. Brown (ed.), Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 472 pp.Google Scholar
  62. Rink, H. 1887. The Eskimo tribes their Distribution and Characteristics, Especially in Regard to Language with a Comparative Vocabulary. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel, and London: Longmans and Green.Google Scholar
  63. Rohner, R.P. (ed.), 1969. The Ethnography of Franz Boas. Translated by H. Parker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  64. Schneider, L. 1985. Ulirnaisigutiit: An Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Quebec, Labrador, and Eastern Arctic Dialects. D. Collis (ed.), Quebec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval.Google Scholar
  65. Sturm, M. 2009a. Apun: The Arctic Snow. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.Google Scholar
  66. Sturm, M. 2009b. Composite List of Inupiaq Snow words (March 2009). Unpublished manuscript cited with author’s permission.Google Scholar
  67. Vakhtin, N.B. and Emelyanova., N.M. 1988. Praktikum po leksike eskimosskogo iazyka (Practical Aid to the Eskimo Lexicon). Leningrad: Prosveshchenie Publishers.Google Scholar
  68. Walunga, W. comp. 1988. St. Lawrence Island Curriculum Resource Manual. Gambell.Google Scholar
  69. Whorf, B.L. 1940. Science and linguistics. Technological Review 42(6): 229–231.Google Scholar
  70. Womkon Badten, L., Kaneshiro, V.O., and Oovi., M. 1987. A Dictionary of the St. Lawrence Island/Siberian Yupik Eskimo Language. Fairbanks: Native Language Center.Google Scholar
  71. Woodbury, A. 1991. Eskimo Words for ‘Snow’. Linguist List 5-1239 (Accessed April 26, 2009)
  72. Woodbury, A. 1994. [Tony Woodbury’s] ‘Snow’ lexemes in Yup’ik [Accessed June 15, 2009]
  73. World Meteorological Organization. 1970. WMO sea ice nomenclature. Terminology, codes and illustrated glossary. Geneva, Secretariat of the World Meteorological Organization, WMO/OMM/BMO, 259, TP. 145.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.McGill UniversityMontréalCanada

Personalised recommendations