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Cocktail Party Linguistics

DS BighamLast Words:
I can haz some new words for snow?

By DS Bigham
Popular Linguistics Magazine

If you’ve heard one great myth about language, it’s probably the X-words for snow myth.  It goes something like “Did you know that Eskimos have [some large number of] words for ‘snow’ ?”.  It’s a myth, I assure you.  And, furthermore, it’s one that’s already been written about by better authors and better linguists than I.  Geoffrey K. Pullum has tackled it on Language Log, , and even given us a nice scholarly article on it, which you can access .  There’s even a on the whole mess.  It’s interesting stuff and I certainly suggest you check it out next time you’re reading by candlelight because the stupid white stuff has knocked out the power again.  So it’s already been discussed and I’m gonna leave all that alone.

Instead, I’d like to suggest an alternative.  English morphology (the way we create new words) is infinitely creative, as we learned last month from Corrine McCarthy.  If any language should allow for hundreds of words for “crystalline water ice”, it should be English (and before the comment thread explodes, yes, there are many MANY languages whose morphology and borrowing practices would, in principle, allow for hundreds of words for … whatever. I’m glossing over that for rhetorical umpf).  Anyway, as I was saying, given that English seems to love a good borrowed word (vuvuzela, anyone?) why don’t we have *more* words for snow than we do?  It’s not that I’m sick of the unending portmanteaus beginning with snow-, it’s just that I think we can do better.

LOL snoInstead of snowmageddon, where we combine the perfectly dull Old English word ‘snow’ with the ultimately Hebrew-derived word ‘Armageddon’, let’s borrow some Turkish and talk about the kar-mageddon instead. It has a better feel to it and opens up a world of possible puns on karma, as well (“Oh hey, Bob, weather man said it’s gonna be a karmageddon tonight, better make sure your shovel is handy.”  “Oh yeah, Ned, well, you know what they say, karmageddon’s a bitch!” … well, we’ll get one pun out of it, anyway).  Or even better, just head outside, stand knee-deep in the stuff, raise your voice angrily at the sky and exclaim, in your strongest Klingon accent, chuchHommey! You’re sure to win the ‘Best Yard Decor’ vote from the Star Trek fans next door, at least.

Other, more mundane, cold weather events may include a lovely evening of hot cocoa and elurra (Basque), a miserable morning driving through a yuki (Japanese) drizzle,  a soporific night nodding off to Old Man Winter snjór-ing (Icelandic) out our window panes, or, if it’s a snow like we had in Central Texas, barely a dusting of the stuff, let’s borrow from Albanian and call it like it is — a total borë.

So how about that?  In a language where we’ve welcomed crazy words like autochthonous and lingerie, surely a couple new words for snø (Norwegian) would be welcomed by winter’s journalistic zeitgeist.  Let’s get to it.  And maybe next time you hear someone talk about “117 words for snow” … maybe they’ll just be talking about English.

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Popular Linguistics Magazine, Volume One - 2011