Apparently the notion that the Inuit have hundreds of words for different types of snow originated with Benjamin Lee Whorf and has been refuted. There are, however, plenty of names for different types of ice, as I learned back when I read the 1992 novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow, in which the heroine is a Greenland Inuit woman living in Copenhagen:
There are reasons for moving in and reasons for staying here. With time, the water has become important to me. The White Palace is located right on Copenhagen Harbor. This winter I have been able to watch the ice forming.
In November the frost set in. I have respect for the Danish winter. The cold — not what is measured on a thermometer, but what you can actually feel — depends more on the strength of the wind and the relative humidity than on the actual temperature. I have been colder in Denmark than I ever was in Thule in Greenland. When the first clammy rain showers of November slap me in the face with a wet towel, I meet them with fur-lined capucines, black alpaca leggings, a long Scottish skirt, a sweater, and a cape of black Gore-Tex.
Then the temperature starts to drop. At a certain point the surface of the sea reaches 29 degrees F, and the first ice crystals form, a temporary membrane that the wind and waves break up into frazil ice. This is kneaded together into a soapy mash called grease ice and gradually forms free-floating plates, pancake ice, which, on a cold day at noon, on a Sunday, freezes into one solid sheet.
And it gets colder, and I’m happy because I know that now the frost has gained momentum; now the ice will stay, now the crystals have formed bridges and enclosed the salt water in pockets that have a structure like the veins of a tree through which the liquid slowly seeps; not many who look over toward Holmen think about this, but it’s one reason for believing that ice and life are related in many ways.
I read Peter Hoeg’s book when the English translation came out in 1993 and it’s stayed with me: mainly because of oddly musical passages like this, and also because it marked one of the few times I’ve actually developed a crush on a fictional heroine — if Smilla Jaspersen ever stepped clear of the pages, I’d want her phone number.
Since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I’ve settled for looking at these wonderful images of different types of ice, such as “blue ice” pictured above, shown at this educational site. As it turns out, Hoeg’s descriptions are plenty apt.
I found Smilla’s Sense of Snow to be a frustrating read: The book is vivid and engrossing right up until the final third, when the story takes an ill-advised turn toward science fiction and the energy starts leaking from the narrative. I might give it another try, but first I’ll want to read some of the other Hoeg novels that were translated into English following Smilla’s success.