Scots words for snow

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Several people have sent this in: “Scots ‘have 421 words’ for snow“, BBC News 9/23/2015:

Academics have officially logged 421 terms – including “snaw” (snow), “sneesl” (to begin to rain or snow) and “skelf” (a large snowflake).

The study by the University of Glasgow is part of a project to compile the first Historical Thesaurus of Scots, which is being published online.

The research team have also appealed for people to send in their own words.

Despite the source being BBC News, the article is only slightly misleading.

The Historical Thesaurus of Scots does exist, and is a laudable project with both scholarly and popular cred, and the cited words for aspects of frozen precipitation are really in it.

I was not able to find the “421 words for snow” in the online thesaurus — the link provided in the article leads to a search result with eight items, three of which are forms of “snaw”, and offers further links to “Snow idioms” with six items, and “v(Snow/begin to snow)” with seven items, one of which is “snaw” again. There are some other snow-word subcategories indirectly available from the same page, like “Type of snow” (with two items), and “Snowball/action of thowing snowballs” (with four items, three of which are alternative spellings of snowball), but I didn’t come near to 421 items (much less distinct “words”) in a quick perusal of these links.

The 421-word total presumably came from Dr. Susan Rennie at the University of Glasgow, who is the P.I. of the team compiling the thesaurus, and who can presumably be relied on to provide a count with no more than a modest PR overlay. (Though I would not be shocked to learn from her that the article misconstrues something she told the reporter.)

But in any case, the usual Whorfian Words for X implication — that the Scots have subdivided the space of frozen-precipitation concepts especially finely, due to the pressures of their meteorological environment — is, as usual,  not very well supported by the evidence provided. Excellent click bait, though.

For an earlier discussion of related issues, see Stan Carey, “Scottish Words for Snow“, Sentence First 8/27/2013, which includes this picture of an art installation that features “31 words and phrases […]  from a glossary of ‘conditions of snow and ice in Scots, Gaelic, and travellers’ cant’”.

The BBC article also includes an obligatory gesture in the direction of the Eskimo snow-words meme:

It is often said that the Inuit have 50 different words for snow.

But at least it’s reported as something that “is often said”, rather than as a well-known fact.

 



10 Comments

  1. John F said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    In my Ulster-Scots experience I’ve only heard of ‘skelf’ as a splinter of wood you get in your finger, so in the so sense there maybe the possibility of it being related to a ‘skiff’ of snow. Maybe ‘sneesl’ could be related to drizzle, like mizzle for misty drizzle, but the Online Etymology attestation for drizzle is possibly too late.

    [(myl) The Dictionary of the Scots Language has skelf n1 “A shelf in gen.; a framework or set of shelves; a ledge of stone, rock, etc.”, and also skelf n2, v “a thin flat fragment of slice, a flake; a splinter […] etc.

    The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue agrees, with skelf n1 “A shelf”, an and also skelf n2 “a splinter, a sharp fragment of wood, stone, or metal”.

    The two words are apparently etymologically distinct (from OE and from Dutch), though perhaps ultimately related. The “snowflake” meaning is presumably an figurative extension of the “sharp fragment (=flake) of wood, stone, metal” meaning.]

  2. ThomasH said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    How many words did sapir & whorf have for “Eskimo?”

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    As John Ritson pointed out in alt.usage.english, if you just enter “snow” at the home page, you get 115 results, which is getting into the ballpark.

    [(myl) But take a look at the results. Storm(e occurs four times, Erd(d)rift occurs three times, Drift occurs twice, Yowdendrift occurs twice, Thow occurs twice, and in fact it seems that almost every item occurs at least twice; and the list ends with 25 “Category results”; so the number is more like something less than (115-25)/2 = 45… minus more generic terms like Weather and Storm, and pronunciation variants like Skiff, Skift, Skifter. So I reckon 35 lemmas or so is more like it, for the results of that search.

    There might be a way to get “in the neighborhood” of 421, but that search isn’t it.]

  4. Bas J said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    This Guardian article references Geoff Pullum’s debunkment of the Eskimo snow myth, although it then goes on to quote Dr Rennie as saying: “Weather has been a vital part of people’s lives in Scotland for centuries, […] The number and variety of words in the language show how important it was for our ancestors to communicate about the weather, which could so easily affect their livelihoods.”

  5. Bas J said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

    Er, this Guardian article = http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/23/scots-thesaurus-reveals-421-words-for-snow

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 4:50 pm

    MYL: There are 64 unique results of that search, which I present alphabetized to help you or anyone decide whether they’re spelling or pronunciation variants. However, I doubt that the list of 421 words omits such variants.

    I didn’t count “weather” or “storm” but I left in all the “snaw” and “drift” compounds. I agree that it’s no longer getting into the ballpark.

    The list doesn’t contain some of the words at the Guardian article Bas J linked to, such as “flindrikin” and “spitters”. I don’t know how you find those. “Flindrikin” is one of the words under “slight fall of snow/sleet”, so I’d think a search for “snow” would turn it up.

    I’d guess that what this really shows is the amount of dialect variation in Scotland. The famous example of words for a strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street doesn’t indicate how important “tree lawns” (the phrase in my dialect) are to Americans.

    bled
    blirtin
    brag
    brizz
    cavaburd
    crump
    doon-come
    driffle
    drift
    drifty
    erdrift
    ewin-drift
    feed
    feefle
    flaffin
    flicht
    flukra
    flush
    frog
    glaister
    glush
    goor
    grashoch
    ground-gru
    grue
    hog-reed
    hurl
    kast de door
    lagger
    lair
    lapper
    lows
    lying storm
    moor
    moorkavie
    neester
    neist
    onding
    onlay
    scour
    scowder
    scruif
    shurl
    skiff
    skiffter
    skift
    skimmer
    skirlin
    skirvin
    slibber
    smore
    snaw-breaker
    snaw-bree
    snaw-broo
    snaw-grima
    snaw-pattens
    snaw-shurl
    sneesl
    spin-drift
    stock-storm
    wirk
    yerd-drift
    yertdrift
    yowdendrift

  7. maidhc said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

    Is snaw-broo like Irn-Bru?

  8. Thomas Rees said,

    September 23, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

    In the Guardian article, after the discussion of words for snow, Alison Flood goes on to discuss marbles terms, one of which is “nieve” (a method of cheating). But “nieve” is Spanish for snow! Surely this means… absolutely nothing.

  9. Adam F said,

    September 24, 2015 @ 3:14 am

    Does this prove the Scots & Eskimos are related? Were aliens involved?

  10. Rodger C said,

    September 24, 2015 @ 7:47 am

    Does this prove the Scots & Eskimos are related?

    Cf. Pokorny on the Robogdi of Ulster.

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