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Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Inuktitut and Polar Bears 

Trawsblawg has a link this morning to a University of Toronto (UofT) article about the old canard about how many words Inuit languages have for snow. In turn, the UofT article includes a link to the Inuktitut Living Dictionary, which provides translations from English and French to/from Inuit languages (both syllabic and roman orthography). The dictionary -- a project of the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders, and Youth -- is a little on the slow side, but really interesting.

The UofT article notes that the common misconception that the Inuit have 200 or so words for snow comes from a misunderstanding: It's not that they have multiple words for snow, but that there is no single word that covers the same broad range as the English word snow. The same is true of bear: Inuktitut languages have a word for polar bear and a word for black bear, but no generic word that encompasses all bears.

For example, Ursus maritimus is polar bear in English or ours polaire in French. In Inuktitut languages it is: ᓇᓄᖅ nanuq (Siglitun, Natsilingmiutut, Kivalliq, North Baffin, East Baffin, South Baffin, West Greenland), ᓇᓄᒃ nanuk (Labrador), ᓇᓄ nanu (West Greenland), and ᓇᓂᖅ naniq (East Greenland).

Beyond that, however, a search for "polar bear" also returns specific terms for different age, size, and sex polar bears: e.g., polar bear runts, ᐊᕗᓐᓇᔪᐃᑦ (avunnajuit); polar bear yearling, ᐊᑎᖅᑕᕕᓂᖅ (atiqtaviniq); mother polar bear, ᐊᑎᖅᑕᓕᒃ (atiqtalik); young polar bear ready to mate, ᓄᑲᐅᕌᕐᔪᒃ (nukauraarjuk).

Polar Bears International has a ton of information about polar bears, conservation, habitat, and husbandry, including this neat factoid:
Because polar bears give off no detectable heat, they do not show up in infrared photographs. (Infrared film measures heat.) When a scientist attempted to photograph a bear with such film, he produced a print with a single spot--the puff of air caused by the animal's breath.

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