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After ice expect snow

Ice was the subject matter of a previous post (22 September 2021). Winter is round the corner, and the best way to prepare for it is to read a few murky stories about the etymology of the relevant words. Ice, as has been shown, is local (Germanic). By contrast, snow has wide connections outside Germanic. Each situation produces endless trouble. In etymology, you are damned if you are single and damned if surrounded by a large family.

Snow sounds so much alike all over Germanic that listing its multiple cognates would be a waste of space. I’ll only mention the fact that, unlike ice, the word for “snow” does occur once in the fourth-century Gothic Bible (snaiws; Mark IX, 3: “And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them”; as always, I quote the English text from the Revised Version). The closest forms can be found in Slavic and Baltic: Russian sneg, Latvian snìega, and so forth. The forms for “it is snowing” are also regular, but there is an unexpected hitch: Lithuanian sniêga means “it is snowing,” while Old Irish snigid meant “it is raining or dripping” (also: Old Irish snige “drop, rain” alongside snecht ~ snechtae “snow”!). In some languages, the word for “snow” begins with the consonant n, as in Welsh nyf, Lat nix (genitive nivis), and Greek nípha (accusative). But this is a familiar complication, covered by the term s-mobile (many words have this elusive s before consonants).

A snow maiden in her element (until she melts).
Image by Victoria_Borodinova

Once we leave Europe, we find Sanskrit snih “to be sticky” and nij– “to wash.” In Sanskrit, stickiness predominates to such an extent that some words with this root came to mean “loyalty, friendship,” apparently, a figurative sense from “sticking together.” Similar semantic transfers must have occurred elsewhere. Thus, Finnish olla pihkassa “to be in resin” means “to be in love.” One wonders: did the story of snow begin in the north, while in India, the original sense was forgotten, and “snowflakes” changed into “sticky substance”? Or did the ancient Indo-Europeans, those who needed the word, know only sticky snow, rather than snowdrifts and snowstorms? Let us not forget that in Irish, a language spoken by the people who have an excellent idea of what cold (and not necessarily sticky) snow looks like, our cognate means “rain.” Unexpectedly, in India, speakers seem to have experienced some discomfort while using such an odd word for “snow,” for they coined vafra, which means “snow,” with the sense familiar to people in colder regions. In southern Greece, too, nífa was replaced with khiōn, a synonym related to the word kheîon “winter.” (English hibernate, from Latin, has a root cognate with those two Greek words.).

What follows is not a law but a factor to be reckoned with: the most archaic forms of language and culture tend to be preserved on the periphery of the area to be investigated. The rationale is that every change starts somewhere and, while radiating in several directions, loses strength toward the margins. Therefore, Irish and Sanskrit may have (!) retained the initial sense of “snow.” But peripheral languages are like all the others: they change too. The surprising thing is the similarity between the Celtic and the Sanskrit words (“rain, dripping; stickiness”): if they deviated from the proto-meaning, it is remarkable that they changed in a similar way. Equally surprising is the fact that the rest of the world is so uniform in its attitude toward the connotations of the word snow.

This is not rain.
Image by Mark Smilyanic

Every time we come across some basic words for natural phenomena, we encounter similar difficulties: ice, snow, and rain, for example, are among the hardest items in etymological dictionaries. At one time, Chicago was the seat of a flourishing school of Indo-European studies. Its best-known product was Carl D. Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonym in the Principal Indo-European Languages (1949). Buck’s verdict sounds discouraging: “Words for ‘snow’ are mostly inherited form an I[ndo]-Eu[ropean] noun and verb meaning ‘snow’, any further analysis of which is futile.” This is perhaps going too far.

The problem confronting us today should be familiar to our readers from the post on ice. We hope to reconstruct a generic term, but it may never have existed. Snow looks quite different in India and Norway, and we remember the talk about fifty Eskimo words for snow. Be that as it may, packed snow, drifting snow, wet snow, plowable snow, snow in the mountains, snow on the ground, and so forth do exist, and there may be (and often are) different names for each of them. We can reconstruct neither the area in which the Indo-European word for “snow” was coined nor the mental process behind the coining. Also, it is not unthinkable that people distinguished between snow as an atmospheric phenomenon and snow on the ground. One of the attempts to decipher the intractable word is through an Old Iranian verb that means “to slobber, salivate.” If this approach is correct, the clue to snow is not so much through the noun as through the verb to snow.

The attacks on snow, briefly mentioned above and reflected in many dictionaries and publications, seem to have an easily noticeable flaw. They assume that there once was a highly specialized sense, something like “to stick to the ground; to pin to the ground” or “to slaver, salivate,” or “grease, moisture, oil” (all of them abstracted from the texts in the Indo-Iranian languages), with a later generalization known to most of the Indo-European world as “flakes falling from the sky.” All that is of course possible, but on the face of it not too probable.

Enjoy snow while it lasts. It too shall pass.
Image by Linda via Flickr

The discrepancy between “to snow” and to “rain” has been explained away by reconstructing the root meaning “to fall from the sky,” though it seems odd that ancient people had an undifferentiated word (verb) for “to snow” and “to rain.” As late as 2009 a book of conference proceedings was published (the meeting took place five years earlier), in which Anna Helene Feulner, a scholar from Berlin, gave an excellent survey of the previous attempts to explain the origin of snow. She missed only the Semitic connection. A less detailed survey was offered in 1980 by Liam Mac Mathúna in the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies. In parts, Feulner shares the opinions of her predecessors.

Indeed, the story may have begun with the verb, because we notice the movement of snowflakes from the sky in our direction before we look at the ground. If, as has been suggested, to snow meant “to fall from the sky and remain lying, attached to the ground,” we can understand all the figurative senses cited above. But we’ll remain in the dark about the origin of the sound complex sn(e)igwh(s), the supposed oldest form of snow. The first consonant (s-) might be a prefix: s-mobile. Supposedly, the ancient similar-sounding Indo-European root nighw– “to wash” existed. Any connection with snow, remembering that our word sometimes means “rain”? In which part of the Indo-European world was the word coined? What kind of snow prevailed there? There is little hope that we’ll be able to discover the answer to those questions. Yet the attempts to decipher the word have not been quite “futile.”

Featured image by Colin Lloyd via Unsplash

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