Reindeer talk

« previous post | next post »

It's Christmas Eve.  Tonight Santa Claus will be flying through the sky in his sleigh pulled by nine reindeer to distribute gifts to all the good little boys and girls around the world.  The names of the reindeer, as we all know, are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (also spelled Dunder and Donner), Blitzen (also spelled Blixem and Blixen), and, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Wikpedia informs us:

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman reprints the 1844 Clement Clarke Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen," rather than the original 1823 version using the Dutch spelling, "Dunder and Blixem."[1] Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though German for thunder is now spelled Donner, and the Dutch words would nowadays be spelled Donder and Bliksem.

Rudolph wasn't added to the team until 1939, and that was in a version of the story written by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.

But that's not what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  Rather, I want to introduce Language Log readers to a most curious Finnish word concerning reindeer behavior.

For the past few days, an informative Associated Press story by David Mac Dougall entitled "Things you didn't know about reindeer" has been circulating on many websites.  I picked it up here.

Among the interesting aspects of reindeer nature and behavior described by the author are the facts that they move quickly and wander widely, they have super-insulating wool to keep them warm in the frigid climes they inhabit, they have hooves that can function like snowshoes, have eyes that change color (from yellow-green in summer to deep blue in winter; "The blue color during the darkest months of the year helps scatter more incoming light and results in better vision…"), their meat is both tasty and healthy, and they are said to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms that apparently make them tipsy.

To me, at least, by far the most fascinating revelations in the article are in the paragraph headed thus:  "But They Must Pause to Pee":

Reindeer can't walk too far without answering the call of nature. In fact, they are unable to walk and pee at the same time, so they have to take a bathroom break roughly every 6 miles. In Finnish, this distance is known as "poronkusema" or "reindeer's piss" and was an old-fashioned description of distances in the countryside.

Poronkusema — what a wonderful word!  Let the syllables roll off your tongue as you contemplate the regularity of reindeer and the observational powers of their herders.

There's an entry on "poronkusema" in Wiktionary and it is also listed in the Wikipedia article on "Finnish obsolete units of measurement", where it is noted:  "Today used to describe something that is at a very obscure distance away."

Before closing, I should mention that I have been fortunate to spend some time in the far north of Sweden and to find myself in the midst of huge herds that migrate over the land, led by a single reindeer.  I have no clear idea how the herders keep track of them or identify which ones belong to whom (some sort of branding, I suppose), but it is truly an impressive sight to see the vast numbers of animals that live in a symbiotic relationship with the Sámi (exonym Lapp).  Careful analysis of the folklore and legend concerning reindeer reveals much about human-animal coexistence.

Finally, I received this tidbit about reindeer characteristics from a scientifically minded friend:

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female deer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December.

Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring.  Therefore, according to EVERY historical rendition depicting Santa's reindeer, EVERY single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen, had to be a girl.

We should have known….  ONLY women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost!

 [Thanks to Carol Conti-Entin and Heidi Krohne]


  1. Viktor said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    They are marked with cuts to their ears, and not sorted until needed.

  2. Treesong said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    Off the intended topic, but you started it:
    Ten reindeer. You forgot Olive, the other reindeer, heroine of a 1997 children's book.

    Also I'm trying to remember the fantasy author who tweeted about her antiheroine character helping Santa save Christmas from Krampus with, among others, Donner, the reindeer patron saint of thunder and cannibals.

  3. julie lee said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    Merry Christmas, and thank you for this wonderful post and for all the others during the year !

    Regarding your remark on reindeers:
    "I have no clear idea how the herders keep track of them or identify which ones belong to whom (some sort of branding, I suppose), but it is truly an impressive sight ."
    There was not too long ago a National Geographic magazine article on Greenland in which a farmer said he knew the face of each one of his large herd of reindeer and could tell them apart. When asked how, he said "How do you recognize people's faces and tell them apart?"

  4. Peter said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

    @Treesong: Olive is my go-to example for illustrating vowel mergers (specifically the cot–caught), and how strange their effects can seem for those lacking them.

  5. dw said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 3:21 pm


    Also the weak-vowel merger.

  6. David Morris said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

    Saint Nicholas/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus's night/day is 5-6 December, not 24-5 December (or should be).
    There's a problem in Australia:

  7. Paolo said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    @David Morris, I was worried Australian Santa might be wearing budgie smugglers, relieved to see it's Y-fronts.

  8. Rubrick said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

    Given the title, I was disappointed that I didn't learn the answer to that most pressing of questions, What does the reindeer say?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 4:36 pm


    If you see titles like "Football talk", "Basketball talk", "Baseball talk", "Hockey talk", and so on, would you be "disappointed" that the football, basketball, baseball, hockey puck, and so forth don't talk?

  10. Jeff said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 5:14 pm


    Pretty sure Rubrick was making the (obvious?) connection to "What does the Fox say". There are lots of "what does the X say" phrases around because of that particular meme, and what fits the pattern better than if "X" is a charismatic boreal mammal?

    Here you go:

  11. Jim Breen said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    >>Poronkusema — what a wonderful word! Let the syllables roll off
    >>your tongue as you contemplate the regularity of reindeer and the
    >>observational powers of their herders.

    And since it's Finnish, make sure the EMphasis is on the first SYLLable, and that you RRoll the RRRs.

    We visited a reindeer farm about an hour out of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland a couple of months ago. We had the marking and identification systems used there explained in considerable detail.


  12. maidhc said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

    You answered a question I've had for years. In a book about Siberia I read that the active ingredients in hallucinogenic mushrooms are passed into urine. People who can't afford to buy mushrooms could buy reindeer urine at a reduced price. But up until now I didn't know how it was collected.

  13. Bill Benzon said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    So Santa and the elves where drinking hallucinogenic reindeer urine. No wonder they're so jolly. And all that flying around was just, you know, tripping.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 6:40 pm


    "What does the X say" and "X talk" are rather different, so one shouldn't be disappointed if a post about the latter doesn't address the former.

    Conveniently, if you're interested in talking animals, rather than animal talk, you can read Mark Liberman's latest post:

    "Watch out for those talking animals tonight"

  15. peterv said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 6:15 am

    julie lee said (December 24, 2013 @ 12:37 pm) quoting a reindeer farmer:

    "How do you recognize people's faces and tell them apart?"

    This is indeed an interesting question. There are clear cultural differences in the methods we use to distinguish faces, methods that arise from facial differences. IME, Caucasians tend to use hair shape and hair colour as key distinguishing attributes, but these facial features are mostly of no use for distinguishing the faces of people from Africa from one another, or people from China from one another, or people from Japan from one another. As a consequence, people from these regions IME tend not to use hair colour and hair shape as means of separating different faces. (Japanese passports supposedly used not to include hair colour, for instance, as a personal attribute since almost every Japanese passport holder's hair colour was the same.)

    The old joke about an Asian person unable to tell apart two European men whose hair colour was different because both of them had beards is an example of the different recognition methods at work.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 7:31 am


    Not to mention eye color and eye shape (some people — like Abraham Lincoln and yours truly) have deeply set eyes, while nose size and nose shape vary greatly as well, and there are plenty of other attributes of the face that vary tremendously from one person to the next. I agree with you, though that hair color varies very little among East Asians, though there are some surprises.

  17. Robert Coren said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    Indeed, unlike such phrases as "football talk", "reindeer talk" could be read as a declarative sentence, in which case it would be entirely reasonable to ask what they were saying.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    @Robert Coren

    Yes, and the same thing could be said of "fish talk".

  19. V said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

    David Morris: In Bulgaria, St. Nicholas' day has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas or Santa, for example. He's the patron saint of fishermen and you eat fish for dinner on it, typically an elaborately prepared dish of baked fish, usually catfish or carp, for some reason.

  20. Jeff said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 10:24 pm


    And thanks for that post – "awesomeness" is indeed the perfect tag. It was just as fun to read as it was to imagine following reindeer around all over the place – although the warm and fuzzy mental image probably has something to do with the fact that it's nice and cozy here in front of the fireplace in my living room.

    @Jim Breen – thanks for the pronunciation guide. I was trying to say it in Spanish.

  21. Jim said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    By the way, to answer the song's question, the fox says "yiff".

  22. Mike said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

    Here's the "what does the Reindeer say" video:

  23. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 12:36 am


    Thanks for finding that "What does the reindeer say?" video.

    I guess we'll probably never know. Here's what the little girl says:

    "What do you say? What is your sound? Will we ever know? Will always be a mystery."

  24. richardelguru said,

    January 1, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    Probably too late (I've been away) but it's not flying reindeer:

  25. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    From John Day:

    Here’s something odd about reindeer — or maybe humans — from p. 62 of John Murdoch’s old book, Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition (Washington 1892). He’s discussing the Alaskan (Point Barrow) Eskimos:

    ‘We saw and heard nothing of the habit so generally noticed among other Eskimo and in Siberia of eating the half-digested contents of the stomach of the reindeer, but we found that they were fond of the fæces taken from the rectum of the deer. I find that this curious habit has been noticed among Eskimo only in two other places — Greenland in former times and Boothia Felix [VHM: the northernmost part of North America]. The Greenlanders ate “the Dung of the Rein-deer, taken out of the Guts when they clean them; the Entrails of Partridges and the like Out-cast, pass for Dainties with them.”* The dung of the musk ox and reindeer when fresh were considered a delicacy by the Boothians, according to J. C. Ross.’**

    * Egede, Greenland, p. 136. ** Appendix to Ross’s 2d Voyage, p. xix.

RSS feed for comments on this post