Writing in the Snow

Qali Growing up, I would hear people quote this statistic: “Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow.” Actually, I still hear people rattle off this little ‘fact’, especially in winter.  However, there are a lot of problems with this statement, not even including the fact that the indigenous people of North America’s tundra and Arctic regions are known as Inuit, not Eskimo. No, what really grates on me about this blanket statement is the implication that it’s somehow weird to have so many words to describe one thing.

When it’s something that makes up a very large part of your daily life during a significant portion of the year, why wouldn’t you take the time to describe it as accurately as possible? The English language has several words for rain: showers, downpour, drizzle, sheets, so why not snow, especially in light of the fact that it sticks around a lot longer than its warm weather counterpart.  Actually, as a Canadian, I’m surprised that we, as a population, haven’t developed more words beyond flurries, blizzard and slush to describe this white stuff that blankets much of the country for four to six months out of the year.

To do that, we have to turn to other cultures and languages. While the true count is well under one hundred, many Inuit dialects have several useful words to describe the incredible variety of snow that we can encounter throughout the course of the winter.  For those of us who live in forested areas, one handy word to know is qali. It refers to the snow that builds up on the branches of trees, glazing limbs in white and making it look like someone attacked the woods with a decorator’s bag full of royal icing.

I was lucky to have learned several Inuit terms for snow as part of some of my undergraduate university courses and like many people who study winter ecology, they’ve been part of my lexicon ever since. So, it took a bit of digging to figure out where the word qali comes from. According to William Wonders, who wrote the book Canada’s Changing North (2003), the word originates from the Kobuk Valley Inuit of northwestern Alaska, along the edge of the treeline.

Qali can range in thickness from a light dusting that could almost be mistaken for hoar frost to heavy globs of wet snow that drag beleaguered limbs to the ground under its unrelenting weight. All along that spectrum, it has a significant impact on the ecological community.

Many winter residents are affected by qali. Spruce grouse and squirrels that regularly feed on cones often find themselves driven down to the ground by a particularly heavy layer of qali. The snow-covered branches can be hard to navigate, forcing these species to search elsewhere for food. On the other hand, qali can make some food more accessible. With particularly heavy wet snows, the qali that builds up on young birches, willow and aspen pulls the flexible branches down, bringing the young, tender tips within reach of hungry cottontails and snowshoe hare. These contorted trees may also provide shelter for a whole host of wildlife.

You might not have ever realized it, but if you live in an area that experiences snow, qali has likely affected you at some point and I don’t mean that moment when you accidentally brush up against a laden branch and send an unwanted shock of snow pouring down the collar of your coat. I’m talking about more significant impacts. Qali can be very heavy and often trees buckle under the weight taking down whatever else is nearby, which is some cases are power lines. I know I’ve spent the odd cold, snowy night in the dark, waiting for hydro to be restored.  These qali-broken trees also open up the forest floor to new growth, creating pockets of mini forest succession and driving the forest cycle on a smaller scale.

Snow is an amazing thing and qali is only one small facet in a dizzying array of diversity, which thanks to northern cultures, we’re able to describe in accurate and imaginative ways. So, next time you take a winter walk surrounded by white, take a moment and discover that variety for yourself and maybe even create your own words to describe it.


9 thoughts on “Writing in the Snow

    • Thanks, Jo Ann. You’ve already got the usage of the word figured out and from the looks of your own blog, you now have the opportunity to use it in your own context. 🙂

  1. Just as “they” say that a true Irishman knows 100 different shades of green, to me it was equally amazing that anyone could identify that many varieties of snow and, as a kid, the idea that calling someone an “Eskimo” was an insult never even occured to us; any more than saying someone was Greek or Irish, Dutch or Indian (either East or West) I’ve since learned that it means “meat eater” – a reference to cannibalism – both culturally taboo and gravely insulting. To this day, I still believe that what’s most important is not what you say, but HOW you say it.
    Can you tell me how “qali” is pronounced? I found “qali” as part of a word/phrase in an Inukitut/English dictionary where it was used in reference to building a snow house (igloo: )

    • As far as I know, ‘qali’ is pronounced ‘kahlee’. I don’t see it in the link you’ve provided, but it’s missing a page between 279 and 281, so I imagine it’s probably there. The definition I have for it comes from a western Inuit nation in Alaska. I would imagine that there would be some variation between dialects. It’s also a word that I’ve come across a few times in snow studies with the definition I’ve given here. I have a feeling when translating languages that use one word to describe an entire phrase, some of the nuances get lost in translation. However, many snow ecologists have adopted some terms from the Inuit and other northern languages like Finnish and Icelandic to describe aspects and details of the snowy world that we don’t have words for in English. I think it’s a great use of language and sharing of perspective.
      Thanks, as always, for your thoughts, Deb.

      • Thanks for that clarification Heather. It’s great learning from you – each time there are a few more pieces placed in The Great Puzzle of Life.
        From the few words of Inuktitut I’ve gathered over the years [(I really should’ve been born a squirrel; ) but 1967 was a great year to start learning about Canada] pronounciation seems fairly straightforward… While I didn’t find “qali” in the link, it was used as a “syllable” in a phrase/combination describing igloo building, meaning, according to the definition, “to stack” and, by extension I would guess by the very nature of qali, it also infers “to stick together”(?). I’d go back and double-check, but google cut me off, after stating I’d reached my page cap):
        But, speaking of being unhappy, there’s nothing quite like getting a collar-full, is there?

    • Lovely post, Heather, I’ve had that snow in the collar experience more than once so that part made me chuckle, and so did Deb’s comment about the hundred shades of green 😉

      • Hi Ailsa. Sorry for taking so long to reply. I’ve been a bit remiss on the blog lately. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I have vivid memories of the snow down the collar too. We just got another foot of it yesterday, so we have some more qali to enjoy until spring finally gets here.

  2. I chuckled when I read about the collar-full, since it’s a favourite entertainment when horse-back riding in the winter bush to try to shower the rider behind you with a strategic pull on an overhanging “qali-full’ branch. I remember discussing this with you a long time ago, either blogging or on Flickr after Shelby introduced me to some of the wonderful words they were using in his snow-studies course. So glad you’ve done this post, it gives much more depth to the wee bit I already knew. Thanks again, Heather. As always, your artwork enriches the pleasure of the read.

    • Thanks, Cindy, for the thoughts. I’ll have to remember to never ride behind you in the winter 🙂 I do remember our talk about snow terms. It was quite a while ago now. I’m glad I could fill in some of the blanks. I hope you’re enjoying your snow.

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