Northern Rats

When is a rat not a rat? When it’s an ᐅᒡᔪᖕᓇᐅᔭᖅ or ugjungnaujaq: something that’s kinda like a shrew.

He Never Said It Was
Fifty Different Words

aput aput aput aput... and so on

Proverb: Even Homer Nods.

Franz Boas must have been nodding off the day he declared that the Eskimos have fifty words for snow. He of all people should have known better. It’s a polysyn­thetic language, meaning that there is no limit to the number of “words” you can come up with— but they all translate into English phrases. Falling snow, drifting snow, melting snow, “sugar” snow, snow that falls into your tea mug just as you are getting warm . . . . If you stick to discrete lexical items, the count drops to something between five and ten.

If I had thought of it in time, I would have counted carefully and stopped at precisely fifty. The real total is closer to a hundred—all of them ᐊᐳᑦ, aput, “snow”. Got that, Franz? One word. Similarly, the existence of sedans and SUVs and conver­tibles and station wagons and so on and so on and so on hasn’t pushed the word “car” out of the American vocabulary.

Just Add Rodent

rodents of the far north

If you can’t get your first-choice rodent, there’s always a backup. No mouse available? Use a lemming (ᐊᕕᙵᖅ avinngaq) or something like it (ᙳᐊᖅ -nnguaq) to make an ᐊᕕᙵᙳᐊᖅ avinngannguaq for your computer. Don’t have rats? Well, the critter before you is (ᐅ -u-) kinda similar to (ᔭᖅ -jaq) a shrew (ᐅᒡᔪᖕᓇᖅ ugjungnaq), so call it an ᐅᒡᔪᖕᓇᐅᔭᖅ ugjungnaujaq.

But the book said it was a catenary!

an igloo is shaped like a catenary

Snow houses may look like hemispheres, but they don’t start out that way. The shape is technically a catenary. Here, in case you did not know, is the equation:

y = a cosh (x/a)

Or, if you prefer,

y = (a/2)(e(x/a) + e(-x/a))

And they say Inuit children don’t do well in math.

Householder’s Pride

take pride in your blue plastic igloo

Today’s trivia: The word “igloo” means house of any kind. So your rats’ plastic domicile really is just as much an igloo as if they had constructed it themselves out of snow blocks.

I would love to see a rat-sized snow house. You could use an ice cube for the window.

I Did It With Sno-Cone Mix

colorful igloo

When you depend on an annual sealift for all your supplies, you sometimes get stuck with something that’s of no earthly use to anyone. That’s when it helps to belong to the ethnic group that invented sunglasses without benefit of glass, and made sled runners out of frozen fish when no other material was to hand.

Is That Really How You Say “Rat”
in Inuktitut?

rodents of the far north

Well, no, it isn’t. It’s a line I found in an early Nunavut Hansard, quoting the Hon. Manitok Thompson. Or, if you want to be scrupulously accurate: quoting her inter­preter, with retro-translation provided by a third party.

ᑭᒃᑯᑐᐃᓐᓇᕐᓂᒃ ᓴᓐᓇᔾᔨᔨᓕᕆᔩᑖᑕᑯᐊᓗ­ᓚᐅᕋᓗᐊᕆᓪᓕ—ᐱᓕᕆᕝᕕᑦᑕ ᐊᑎᖓ ᑕᑭᔪᕖᙶᓗᒃ—ᐋᑐᓴᖃᑦᑕᐅᑎᓕᕆᔨᒃᑯᑦ, ᐊᒻᒪᓗ ᐅᐊᔭᒨᖓᔪ­ᓕᕆᔨᒃᑯᑦ ᐱᖁᑎᖏᓐᓂᒃ ᐊᑐᖅᑕᐅᔪᖃᙱᑦᑐᖅ ᑳᓐᑐᕌᒃᑕᐅᓯᒪᔪᓄᑦ.

kikkutuinnarnik sannajjijilirijiitaatakualu­lauraluarilli—pilirivvitta atinga takijuviinngaaluk—aatusaqattautilirijikkut, ammalu uajamuungaju­lirijikkut piqutinginnik atuqtaujuqanngittuq kaanturaaktausimajunut.

There are no Public Works—my goodness, my department’s name is long—Telecommuni­cations & Technical Services facilities being used by any contractors.

A slightly more detailed version is in—where else?—At Home With the Hansard.

Postscript: Once I’ve got my rats looking at something rectangular and incompre­hensible, why not recycle them? Here they are again, looking at a UCAS keyboard.

the same rats, looking at a UCAS keyboard

Uranium Is Your Friend


Q.: What is wrong with this picture?

A.: Where there are no roads, there can be no billboards.

But it’s only a matter of time, if you believe these folks.

Know Your Enemy

rat teacher instructing rats students about parts of the cat

Poster, clockwise from top left: ᓂᐊᖁᖅ niaquq (head), ᐋᕆᐊᖅ aariaq (back), ᐸᒥᐅᖅ pamiuq (tail), ᐃᑎᒐᒃ itigak (foot), ᑯᑭᒃ kukik (nail).

Chalkboard, counterclockwise from top left: ᐳᓯᐅᑉ ᓂᐊᖁᖓ pusiup niaqunga (cat’s head), ᑮᓇᖅ kiinaq (face), ᐅᓗᐊᖅ uluaq (cheek), ᐹ paa or ᖃᓂᒃ qanik (mouth), ᑐᓗᕆᐊᖅ tuluriaq (eyetooth), ᑭᒍᑦ kigut (tooth), ᓯᒡᒍᒃ sigguk (snout), ᐃᔨ iji (eye), ᓯᐅᑦ siut (ear).

Oh, yes, the title. ᐳᓯᑯᓗᒃ, pusikuluk, said the printer, making a cat or ᐳᓯ pusi into a dear little housecat. Some nameless pupil has very properly altered it to ᐳᓯᕈᓗᒃ, pusiruluk.

How many eels does it take
to fill a hovercraft?

hovercraft with no eels in sight

I’ve written elsewhere about the line “My Hovercraft Is Full Of Eels”. This time around, let’s take it at face value—and keep it in English.

The eels aren’t really bothering anyone. Out of sight, out of mind. But when they desert a sinking hovercraft, you know it’s time for the lifeboats.

eels deserting a sinking hovercraft


the star that never moves or changes

The North Star is, among other things, the star that doesn’t move—most noticeably if you live where it is directly overhead. It has many names aside from the modern and boring ᐳᓚᕆᔅ (Pularis or Polaris, depending on what your dialect does with short vowels).

Here we’ve got ᓱᖁᓱᐃᑦᑐᖅ, Suqusuittuq. That’s ᓱᖁ (suqu-), to change your behavior or appearance, plus ᓱᐃᑦ (-suit-), hardly ever, all wrapped up with ᑐᖅ (-tuq), the person or thing that does—or, in this case, doesn’t do—all this.

If you prefer, you can call it ᓂᑭᑦᓱᐃᑦᑐᖅ, nikitsuittuq, building on ᓂᑭᑦ (nikit-), to move slowly across your line of vision. A herd of musk oxen might do it, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the star to follow suit. Or, for something completely different, try ᑐᕌᒐᖅ, turaagaq. The verb—in Inuktitut, there’s always a verb—is ᑐᕌᖅ (turaaq-), to aim straight at something, or to have some­thing as a goal. Pair it up with ᒐᖅ (-gaq), the person or thing who has this done to them.


wall labeled “..ᑕᐃᓕᒋᑦ” in syllabics.

It began in English, with a sign reading “DON’T”—or possibly “DO”. From there, it could only be a matter of time before I asked myself how one would word the same message in Inuktitut. The answer lies in the affix ᑕᐃᓕ (-taili-): to stop or refrain from doing something.

wall labeled “DO(N’T)”

To keep things ambiguous, I’ve obfuscated the verb. It might be anything ending in ᑲᖅ or ᑳᖅ, ᖃᖅ or ᖄᖅ . . . or possibly ᓗᖅ or ᓘᖅ, ᖢᖅ or ᖣᖅ. Or, theoretically, ᓄᖅ or ᓅᖅ, though these don’t seem to occur.

A quick trip to Spalding’s dictionary, coupled with a carefully crafted Regular Expression,* turns up over fifty words fitting this pattern. And that’s just discrete lexical items. We haven’t even started on the verbs that can be built on the fly using the affix (ᑕ)ᖃᖅ -(ta)qaq- or compounds such as ᔭᕋᐃᖃᖅ -jariaqaq-.

All this is assuming for the sake of discussion that the thing you’ve been asked (not) to do is intransitive or non-specific. Otherwise there’s a whole new array of endings, depending on whom you (don’t) do it to and how many of them there are.

* ([kq]a+|[nlz]u+)[qr][pt]u(q|nga)\b, where “z” acts as stand-in for the non-ASCII character ᖢ (łu). The & notation used in the days of manual typewriters is obviously not going to cut it in HTML.

Border Checkpoint

two rats facing a sign that says ᓄᖅᑲᕆᑦ

When the sign says ᓄᖅᑲᕆᑦ in syllabics, there can be no question which territorial border you have just crossed.

I originally planned to make this a summer scene, with tundra-colored ground. The studio director saw the picture before I’d put in the color—meaning that it was all white—and said to leave it as snow. This, in turn, gave the rats their color. If the background had been grey-green, the foreground obviously could not have been purple. Ugh.

Not tired yet? There are more pictures next door in the Duct Tape and Hovercraft area: