In the language of the Inupiat Eskimos who inhabit this barren land 300 miles north of the Artic Circle, there are six words for "ice" and none for "time."

But time is now a major issue for the Eskimos on Alaska's North Slope in what they see as a struggle for survival against the U.S. government and the nation's major oil companies.

The battleground is the ice-clogged Beaufort Sea one of seven encircling the Arctic Ocean. It is here that the Eskimos are pitting the hunting folklore of their forefathers against modern technology in an attempt to block the search for more Alaskan oil.

The state and federal governments plan to auction 514,000 acres in the Beaufort sea later this year for oil exploration in a quest to push the search for energy from Prudhoe Bay out into the sea itself.

The oil companies, which are expected to bid handsomely for the leases, are confident about their ability to meet the challenge of an ocean commonly menaced by Arctic storms, huge ice ridges and five-mile-long icebergs.

But the Eskimos, who eke out a subsistence living in the villages of the North Slope and who are backed by a group of dissident scientist, warn of possible environmental disaster if the oil companies ared allowed to drill in the sea.

"It's like going to the moon," said Patrick L. Dobey, former chief geologist for the State of Alaska. "There are risks that affect the entire North American continent, and we're not even sure what they can be."

At the outer limit of concern is the fear expressed in a 1978 study of U.S. Artic policy conducted by the University of Virginia's Center for Oceans Law and Policy. That study contends that spilled oil would flow under the ice, become absorbed in it and, after several years of surface melting and subsurface freezing, reach the surface of the Arctic ice pack. The dark oil then would cause the pack to absorb more sunlight, prompting a melting that could affect the world climate.

More immediately, the Eskimos worry that oil spills -- or even construction itself -- will harm or drive away the bowhead whales, seals and fish upon which they depend for their livelihood.

In hearings at Barrow and Kaktovik, villages which oppose the lease sale, older Eskimos talk of islands which disappeared forever under the ice on-slaught. They talk of ice override, which happens when a great iceberg strikes an island and the topmost ice continues to move forward. Sometimes the ice shears off the top of an island, as it presumably would do to oil drilling equipment.

While acknowledging the difficulties of drilling in the outer Beaufort, oil company spokesmen say they can use land-drilling tehnology within the -barrier island three to 15 miles from the Beaufort shore.

Essentially the companies would build huge gravel islands in the shallow sea and extend the land. But Thomas Napagak, an Eskimo spokesman, tells of one ice movement in 1974 that damaged a building at Bullen Point 30 feet above the waterline and well within the barrier islands.

The testimony of Eskimos is important because much of the relatively little that is known about the behavior of ice in the Beaufort Sea has come from the Eskimos, whose people have hunted and fished in this area for thousands of years.

The Eskimos' testimony has come in painstakingly written affidavits collected by legal services attorney Michael I. Jeffery and submitted in a bundle to hearing officers. The oil companies, in the meantime, flew in experts from the Gulf States to tell about their safety precautions.

The federal-state joint sale of leases for the Beaufort Sea is now scheduled for December. Those waters are owned 70 percent by the state and 20 percent by the federal government. Ownership of the remaining 10 percent is in dispute.

Major oil companies -- including Standard Oil of Ohio-British Petroleum (Sophio-BP), Chevron and Atlantic Richfield -- want the lease sale to take place now so that oil production can begin in eight to 10 years when the flow from Prudhoe Bay is expected to decline.

Gov. Jay Hammond, a sometimes conservationist, promised in his 1978 re-election campaign that he would move forward on the Beaufort sale.

But the biggest push has come from the Carter administration, whose representatives view Arctic oil and natural gas production as an essential element in the campaign to make the United States energy-self-sufficient.

The oil industry also is pushing for the lease sale without further delay. "Quite frankly, the political climate is right for it now. Next at this time we could have a lame-duck president and an organized opposition intent on killing the sale, not just delaying it," said an industry source.

Ice in the Beaufort Sea usually breaks up around the beginning of 1june. If a blowout occurred n the spring, the oil almost certainly would enter the water and damage the wildlife of the area, one of the major gathering places for North American migratory waterfowl.

If a blowout occurred during winter when the ice was fast, oil industry spokesmen say it would be easier to clean up than a spill on dry land. They acknowledge, however, that cleanup would be difficult in Arctic waters. Many studies -- including an environmental impact statement generally supportive of the Beaufort drilling question whether a cleanup in water could be performed at all. An unpublished draft evaluation by scientists of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraton's outer continental shelf program reached this conclusion:

"We acknowledge that spill control technology is poor at best, nonexistent in moving ice and probably most feasible conceptually in stable fast ice capable of supporting cleanup operations."

The panel agreed that any drilling should end by March 31 each year. The oil industry is pushing for a May 31 drilling deadline.

There is a battleground of place as well as time. The North Slope Borough government, which has its headquarters in Barrow, and the native-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp. have endorsed the sale but asked that six conditions be imposed. The most significant cant would prohibit drilling beyond the barrier islands which separate the outer Beaufort, wher depths range up to 60 feet, from the inner shallow sea of half this depth.

Eben Hopson, the legendary, mayor of the borough, has been fighting against outer-sea exploration for years, telling anyone who will listen that "nothing will stop the ice out there." The proposed December lease sales contain all of the tracts beyond the barrier islands.

Tim Bradner, a Sohi-BP spokesman who has the respect of the borough government, acknowledged that the industry lacks the technology to drill in the outer waters of the Beaufort.But he said that the only way the oil companies will make the tremendous expenditures needed to create such a technology is if they have leased the land and know they can develop it. Until the technology is completed, drilling will be confined to the shallower waters where on-land techniques can be use, Radner said.

Raymond Neakok, a relatively uneducated Barrow whale hunter, once worked for an oil company as a laborer. Patrick Dobey spent 16 years in a position of trust as a major oil company geologist. They both say that the leasing governments should erect platforms or other structures in the Beaufort without drilling, and leave them there to see what happens to them. Neakok, however, is confident that they would not withstand the Arctic ice for long.

The Eskimos themselves are deeply divided over the impact of the lease sale. Some think their regional corporation has sold them out for furture profits. The week after the corporation gave its conditioned endorsement of the sale, elders of the village met in Barrow and opposed it.

But corporation officials believe they have recognized a future made inevitable by the desperate American need for oil and gas.

"We think we have more chance to influence conditions of the sale if we endorse it," said Edward Hopson, the mayor's brother and president of the regional corporation. "One way or the other, there is going to be some drilling out there."

The borough government also has been working against the December sale date to try to influence conditions. The borough's chief tool is a coastal zone management program, copied from California and improved, that would give the Eskimos significant control over the specific areas of oil construction. Wether this zoning will occur in time to accomplish its purposes remains an open question.

Surprisingly, in a state that has been a magnet for environmentalist action, the Beaufort sale has caught conservationists in some disarray.

"All our resources, our best and our brightest, have been poured into the controversy over D-2 (Alaska wilderness) lands," says one prominent environmentalist. "My nightmare is that we will some day have to choose between oil exploration in the Arctic Wildlife Range, which we've pretty well sewed up, and the Beaufort, which we haven't. God help me if it's a choice, but the Beaufort is more vulnerable."