One of the reasons I love National Geographic is the new words each issue brings. Look at this one! I particularly like how the p and q are facing off across a jumble of other letters. A jumble? Look closely and you’ll see that pitera anagrams to pirate. It’s like a pirate and another pirate attacking each other in a melee, each trying to win the letters.
And what is that q doing at the end? I bet National Geographic has a much-higher-than-average rate of words with q not followed by u thanks to transliterations of languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Inuktitut… and its use in the spelling of Albanian, among others. But which language is this word from?
This word is from the article “End of the Earth,” by Murray Fredericks, who went to Greenland (also known as Kalaallit Nunaat) and photographed the scenery on the ice cap. You can see some of the photos online in “What Does Nothing Look Like?” The views are transfixing, infinite, white on white (not green – that name was just marketing by Erik the Red). But in all these pictures, you can’t see one of the most powerful things he encountered.
In Tunumiisut, the Inuit language of the east coast of Greenland, this means ‘attacker’.
It is an apt name.
Is it a polar bear? No. You can take pictures of those. This is something that besets you – besets whole towns, even – for a day or longer. You have no choice but to hide from it and hope it does not tear your protection away from you. It can cause massive damage. The only blessing is that you can see the sign of its approach hours in advance. In the snow, rising up in the distance.
But you can’t see a piteraq.
And it’s pretty hard to see much when a piteraq is attacking.
Because the snow is flying.
But who has seen the wind?
Yes. A piteraq is a wind. It’s a katabatic wind: a cold wind formed on high that comes sweeping down, aided by gravity. It can move at over 200 km/h. Here’s a nice rundown of the facts of piteraqs from the blog Ultima Thule.
And here’s a video of someone up on the ice cap experiencing one. Now imagine that sweeping down a fjord into a town.
Since Tunumiisut is an Inuit language, we know that the q stands for a voiceless uvular stop. Imagine you’re trying to get rid of a popcorn hull stuck at the very back of your mouth and you should get the tongue position about right for this sound.
So when you say piteraq, it bounces back in your mouth like a tent being blown through town by a piteraq: first off the lips, then off the tip of the tongue, fluttering for a moment more there (snagged on something?), and then accelerating to knock off the back and – it’s gone. Nothing left to be seen.