Since it is snowing now and we’re bracing for a blizzard on the northern Steppes of North America, it seems appropriate to look at and unpack the Dakota word for these storm systems. Dakota, after all, was one of the original languages of the Dakotas and Minnesota.
Blizzard in Dakota is icamnatanka, prounced roughly as ih-cha-mnah-tan-ka. In the case of icamnatanka, the word is a combination of two slightly smaller Dakota words. The first is icamna, which means “to blow, bluster, storm, drive, as wind and snow.” Mna in the word icamna is related to yumna. The yu in yumna expresses causation in some way. Thus the entire word yumna denotes a causation that means to rip a seam with scissors, or to rip a seam in anyway by pulling.
The second word in icamnatanka might be a bit more familiar. The word tanka means large or great. It is easy by now to see how icamnatanka comes to denote blizzard. It is a large or great blowing, blustering storm driven by wind. And mna is a word also connected to ripping at the seams. If we use our historical imaginations, we can envision a Dakota, Lakota or Nakota on the northern Great Plains in what we know today as early December. When an icamnatanka would strike, this blizzard would indeed bluster and blow snow through or rip at any kind of seam, whether in a tipi, earth lodge or through the seam of a hide-garment.
I posted a short version of this to social media the other day and a good friend, Dakota Goodhouse, texted me and said, “The Lakota use ichamna for snow storm or blizzard too, but use Iwoblu for severe blizzard.” The variations in language are mind-blowing. In the paraphrased words of John K. Cox at North Dakota State University, to learn a second language means that one learns to grow the other half of their brain. This is true.
Anyhow, as I continue the joyous struggle to learn second languages, it has always seemed to make more sense to me when individual words are unpacked. And by “joyous struggle” I mean just that: learning languages, at least for myself, is difficult. But I’m up for the task. To understand another word and language is to begin to understand another culture. Language is so very connected to culture, and is the way a culture describes itself, immediate surroundings, and the world. When one opens a language they open up a new way of seeing yesteryear, today, and even tomorrow.
The unpacking of icamnatanka came by way of help from one of Clifford Canku‘s Dakota Language I worksheets, and A Dakota-English Dictionary by Stephen R. Riggs (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992). Riggs started developing the dictionary in the 1830s with Samuel W. and Gideon H. Pond, and Thomas S. Williamson. They worked directly with Michael Renville, David Grey Cloud, James Garvie, and Walking Elk, a Yankton tribal leader.