Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Thin Ice

Snow is a fascinating subject for a writer. A child's plaything, a scientist's study and (as the January storm showed us) a force capable of turning urban lives upside-down. Looking back through my poems, I’m surprised to see how many times themes of snow and ice emerge. There's an old poem, ‘Remembering Snow’, telling of a sudden spring storm in Massachusetts, and recently a ‘Winter Villanelle’ describing a tense night walk down an icy road. There's even a long narrative about the unfortunate Captain Oates, written long before I realised that I would be going to the Pole too.

But what if my powers of description fail me when faced with the immense glacial landscapes of Greenland? How can the English vocabulary, forged to suit a slight winter chill, possibly do the job? I’ve heard elusive rumours about the number of Eskimo words for snow. In the Inuktun dictionary of the northern Greenlandic dialect, the words for ice include kaniq, qirihuq, qirititat, nilak, nilak, nilaktaqtuq, hiku, hiquaq, hikuaqtuaq, hikurhuit, hikuqihuq, hikuliaq, maniraq, hikup hinaa, qainnguq, manillat, kassut, iluliaq, ilulissirhuq, auktuq, quihaq, hirmiijaut. Rime frost, freshwater ice, sea ice, thin ice, ice on the inside of the tent, pack ice, new ice, a smooth expanse of ice, the ice edge, solid ice attached to the shore, hummocky ice, pressure ridges, pieces of floating ice, icebergs in the water, melting ice…

As Gretel Erlich points out in her remarkable memoir This Cold Heaven, about her life among the Inuit hunters, highly specific language is needed when identifying ice or snow. When you are travelling over ice sheets at speed in a sled, the type of ice means the difference between life and death – skimming and sinking. The ice is your runway, your drink, the shelter where you build an igloo when it’s time to sleep. It is even the temporary record of your travels, as Erlich notes when describing a trip on a hunter's sled: "The Inuit people never had a written language. Now the whip, trailing behind the sled, made marks in the snow that looked calligraphic in the loose running style the Chinese call ‘grass script’." Will the ice be only a temporary trace of my travels, or will I record it? One thing is sure, a poet has to survive by language, just as the hunter does.

Thanks to Clare Carter, who was inspired by a residency at Upernavik, for the photo.


Peter Keighron said...


It's a wicked, wicked myth that Eskimos, Inuits, or any anyone else, have more words for snow than than anyone else, so I'm sure you won't be lost for words. but don't take my words for it - http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000405.html
In a nutshell, there's only one word for snow - snow. But you wouldn't believe how many words there are for nutshell in squirrel.

Brett said...

I've got a language I haven't used for ages if you want to take that with you? It's quite good for white environments. In the freezer at the mo but just let me know if you want me to get out for you... Would have to be taken over in an ice box. Don't know what hand luggage says about ice boxes but perhaps you could disguise in a big basket. Just say it's gin or something. Roll your eyes and loll a bit and all that so you look really drunk... Not sure how heavy will be now as has been in there for a while... xx