"Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo"

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Last month, in the post "'Words for snow' watch," I reported that Kate Bush's new album (out Nov. 21) is called 50 Words for Snow. I wrote, "It's unclear at this point exactly how Eskimos will figure into Bush's songwriting, but it's safe to say they'll be in there somewhere." Today, thanks to NPR's stream of the album, I've listened to the ethereal title track, and the Eskimos are indeed in there, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect.

The song features a spoken-word guest appearance from Stephen Fry, who's had some experience with the snow-word myth. As Matt in PDX pointed out in a comment on last month's post, Fry debunked the myth on the game show QI (transcript here). In the album credits, Fry is listed as "Prof. Joseph Yupik," a playful allusion to the Yupik peoples of Alaska and Siberia. (The term "Eskimo" tends to cover the Yupik and the Inuit — Yupik languages form a group distinct from those of the Inuit.) With Bush urging him on, Fry as Prof. Yupik intones fifty fanciful "words for snow" in English and some other real and imagined languages… including Klingon. I found the following lyrics transcribed on a fan site:

50 WORDS FOR SNOW

1 drifting
2 twisting
3 whiteout
4 blackbird braille
5 Wenceslasaire
6 avalanche
Come on man, you've got 44 to go,
come on man, you've got 44 to go.
Come on man, you've got 44 to go,
come on man, you've got 44 to go.
7 swans-a-melting
8 deamondi-pavlova
9 eiderfalls
10 Santanyeroofdikov
11 stellatundra
12 hunter's dream
13 faloop'njoompoola
14 zebranivem
15 spangladasha
16 albadune
17 hironocrashka
18 hooded-wept
Come on Joe, you've got 32 to go,
come on Joe, you've got 32 to go.
Come on now, you've got 32 to go,
come on now, you've got 32 to go.
Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo.
Let me hear your 50 words for snow.
19 phlegm de neige
20 mountainsob
21 anklebreaker
22 erase-o-dust
23 shnamistoflopp'n
24 terrablizza
25 whirlissimo
26 vanilla swarm
27 icyskidski
28 robber's veil
Come on Joe, just 22 to go,
come on Joe, just 22 to go.
Come on Joe, just you and the Eskimos,
Come on now, just 22 to go.
Come on now, just 22 to go,
Let me hear your 50 words for snow.
29 creaky-creaky
30 psychohail
31 whippoccino
32 shimmerglisten
33 Zhivagodamarbletash
34 sorbetdeluge
35 sleetspoot'n
36 melt-o-blast
37 slipperella
38 boomerangablanca
39 groundberry down
40 meringuerpeaks
41 crème-bouffant
42 peDtaH 'ej chIS qo' *
43 deep'nhidden
44 bad for trains
45 shovelcrusted
46 anechoic
47 blown from polar fur
48 vanishing world
49 mistraldespair
50 snow

* KB: "Klingon. The language they speak in Star Trek."

Credits
Prof. Joseph Yupik: Stephen Fry
Drums: Steve Gadd
Bass: John Giblin
Guitars: Dan McIntosh
Keyboards: Kate

And here's part of an interview with Kate Bush (by John Doran of The Quietus) where she talks about the genesis of the song:

Now I can’t be 100% sure but when I read the name Professor Joseph Yupik as having something to do with the title track on the credits to this album, I have a feeling that my leg was being pulled. Because I know that Yupik is a Siberian Eskimo language isn’t it?

KB: [laughing] Yeah, it’s just a bit of fun John! No, I wrote the song and I asked Stephen [Fry] who is playing Joe Yupik to come and read the words.

I’ve got to say that it’s my favourite song on the album. I love it and keep on playing it over and over again.

KB: You do? Awwww. Thanks!

I love the way out of the fifty words that you come up with for snow, without a bit of digging round I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which words were real, which were made up, which were partially true and which were obscure, archaic or foreign. I know that the whole idea of Eskimos having 50 words for snow is false but at the same time I do know that the Sami people of Lapland do actually have hundreds of words for snow. But from your point of view where did the idea for such a beautiful and weird song come from?

KB: Well, I’m really pleased you like it. Years ago I think I must have heard this idea that there were 50 words for snow in this, ah, Eskimo Land! And I just thought it was such a great idea to have so many words about one thing. It is a myth – although, as you say it may hold true in a different language – but it was just a play on the idea, that if they had that many words for snow, did we? If you start actually thinking about snow in all of its forms you can imagine that there are an awful lot of words about it. Just in our immediate language we have words like hail, slush, sleet, settling… So this was a way to try and take it into a more imaginative world. And I really wanted Stephen to read this because I wanted to have someone who had an incredibly beautiful voice but also someone with a real sense of authority when he said things. So the idea was that the words would get progressively more silly really but even when they were silly there was this idea that they would have been important, to still carry weight. And I really, really wanted him to do it and it was fantastic that he could do it.

I also came across a Dutch interview with Bush where she suggests that the Klingon part was provided by an expert in the language who Stephen Fry happened to know. Perhaps this was the computational linguist d'Armond Speers (who taught Klingon to his son), interviewed by Fry in a segment on Klingon in "Fry's Planet Word." Or perhaps it was the creator of Klingon himself, Marc Okrand — the Dutch article does say it was from "the man who invented Klingon" (de man die de taal Klingon heeft uitgedacht). In any case, the song turns out to be a fascinating excursion that ends up worlds away from the original snowclone.

[Update, 11/15: Jan Freeman observes that it's high time that we republished this cartoon by Matt Bors, which we first posted in 2005:

As noted at the time, the list in the top panel is derived from Phil James's satirical "The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow," also mentioned by Ray Girvan in the comments below.]

[Update, 11/24: Marc Okrand confirms via email that he indeed is the source of the Klingon line. He explains that peDtaH 'ej chIS qo' means "It's snowing and the world is white." Okrand is thanked in the liner notes (with the Klingon expression of gratitude, qatlho').]

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24 Comments »

  1. jangari said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    I do know that the Sami people of Lapland do actually have hundreds of words for snow.

    What? I've never heard this before so I went and Googled it. A Wikipedia page cites a climate report and a Saami pamphlet, which looks about as credible as some of the sources that people used to point to for Eskimo.

    Is there any credibility in this claim? I'm sceptical but I may have just missed this entirely.

  2. Sili said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    Let me guess: Sami is agglutinating as well?

  3. Markonsea said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

    Unlike the Inuit, the Sami's livelihood depends on herding reindeer. This makes snow more important to them. Google gave me this:

    http://www.utexas.edu/courses/sami/diehtu/siida/herding/herding-nr.htm

    "The Sami language has a rich vocabulary for describing snow. For example, the following Sami words illustrate how much description is in each word:

    " 'Seanas: the dry, large grained and water-holding snow at the deepest layers, closest to the ground surface, found in late winter and spring. It is easy for reindeer to dig through seanas.
    Skarta: when there has been rain, and the snow has fastened itself to the ground; a hard layer of snow on the ground. This causes poor grazing conditions.
    Čuohki: an ice sheet on pastures formed by rain on open ground that subsequently freezes. This causes the worst grazing as the reindeer are unable to dig down to the lichen.'

    "These are only a few examples of Sami words for snow but they show how important snow conditions are to reindeer herding."

    Seems perfectly credible to me.

  4. Markonsea said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    And here's the low-down: *all* the words in Sami to describe reindeer and snow:

    http://www.arcticlanguages.com/papers/Magga_Reindeer_and_Snow.pdf

  5. Paul Zukowski said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    I seem to recall that the Inuit language uses root words that can have almost limitless variations (by prefix or suffix I don't recall). So I want to say that Eskimos only have two words for snow: one for snow falling and one for snow already on the ground — but these two words can be modified into dozens if not hundreds of shades of meaning. Am I close? Or just snowy minded?

  6. Rubrick said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

    Let me guess: Sami is agglutinating as well?

    English sure has a lot of words for sticking things together.

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    Let me guess: Sami is agglutinating as well?

    As well as Inuit (or Yupik)? Those are usually held to be polysynthetic, not agglutinating.

  8. Quirin said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    It's interesting that professor Magga also presents words for types of reindeer. I strongly suspect that knowledge of this terminology is very much limited to actual reindeer breeders and enthusiasts, just as all the English words like "filly" and "ridgling" are not commonly known outside the world of horse fanciers — and by extension, most Sami speakers probably don't know all these snow words.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

    I am hoping that Steve Gadd turns out to be not only a legendary session drummer (for the rather boringly "tasteful" subset of the music world) but a conlang/Klingon enthusiast who was the vector for that entry.

  10. J. Goard said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    Why isn't anybody every interested in finding the language that has just one word for anything that's falling or has fallen from the sky in large quantities?

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    I am a trifle drunk at this instant, so apologies I have failed to any discussion of this – however, Phil James's satire of the "words for snow" meme is worth checking out. I copied it here: The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow.

  12. Markonsea said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    (It's interesting that professor Magga also presents words for types of reindeer. I strongly suspect that knowledge of this terminology is very much limited to actual reindeer breeders and enthusiasts …)i

    But – at least, until very recently – *all* Sami were reindeer breeders and enthusiasts!

  13. A.M. said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    @J. Goard

    This would imply a culture that developed in a place where rain and snow happen both very rarely and with the same probability. I can't think of such a place right now; most very dry areas apparently are very hot as well.

    Although, for the sake of Introduction to Language Studies classes (the only place this data has any actual value), it would surely be nice to know such a language.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    Well, the Sami had to borrow the word for crusted snow skarta from the Old Norse skorpa, "crust". Related to English "scurf".

    Swedish phone books are (used to be, anyway) arranged by last name, first name then occupation. (Shortage of names there.) In the North half the names had renägare, reindeer owner as occupation.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 3:02 am

    What's the word for the diverging snow you continue for hours to see when you close your eyes after you've been driving in it for even a short time?

  16. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 7:13 am

    As someone who has learned to ski in recent years – my father-in-law has almost certainly no neurons available for the idea of a non-skier, nor for drawing a conclusion from the fact that someone had lived in Austria for over a decade without learning to, let alone having words for these concepts – let me have a think about how many words we use to describe snow here.

    I think we have Schnee, Pulver, Firn, and I've heard of Harsch, and then there'd be Gatsch, which I think must be what the Germans mean when they say Sulz. Of course, there are lots of adjectives, such as hart, waach, eisig, rillig, bucklig, schlagig (da schlogts wie Teifl), griffig, zammg'schobn, glatt, klumpig. So on a very generous interpretation we get by with a vocabulary of about a dozen words all told. Let's leave out compounds beginning or ending with -schnee-.
    One more snow term is the humorous alternative past participle of Schneien "g'schniebm" – making it a strong verb instead of its proper version geschneit.

    Bear in mind that while Eskimos just live in snow, Austrians actually do things with it, but still no hundred words; in fact, skiing proficiency and vocabulary seem to be inversely related, if post-race interviews are anything to go by.

    Here's a nice account of the matter in German:
    http://www.iaas.uni-bremen.de/sprachblog/2007/01/29/schneeschmelze/

  17. Lars Clausen said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    I once collected a list of English words for "horse", excluding names for specific races and breeds (like "Arab") or names that were just some job with "-horse" at the end (like "racehorse" or "warhorse"). Still got to over 30 with just a bit of help.

    Also see the last paragraph of http://catb.org/jargon/html/comparatives.html for two other possible categories of snowcloneclones.

  18. Leonardo Boiko said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    @Lars: “The more you look at English, the more you realize: It’s—It’s horses all the way down!” http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1874

  19. sissyphus said,

    November 16, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    Irish/australian band Clan Zu, also had a song called "Words for snow", but I doubt you'll find as much linguistic link in the lyrics

    http://www.youtube.com/user/1234asdf1243#p/a/u/0/ivd8WZwzZkw

    "So many call here
    On their way down below
    And I'll be here burning
    Till the end of time

    Thoughts of the falling
    Burn from the ceiling to wall
    And I'll be here waiting
    Till the end of time

    And nothing here is safe, and nothing here is sacred, and the thing you care for most will crawl away wounded as you tell it you love it, into the dark recesses and hollowed-out corners of nothing. And the last touch is always the hardest, and the last touch is always the same, and the last look is the one that'll kill you, and the last touch is the one that'll drive you insane.

    And as the night fell, and the gutters swelled with the roar of the pissing city and the falling, balling, and crawling below, he sat shaking uncontrollably by the window looking over the pestilent street. And he sat, and he prayed, and he prayed, and he sat, and he prayed to St. Augustus, St Brigid, Padre Pio, patron saint of all sinners, patron saint of all fools, patron saint of every fucking dying, crawling thing beneath him, shouting out the names of the dead and forgotten. And he cried out for Christ's sake help me! For Christ's sake get me out of here! God of all sick things get me the fuck out of here! Release me!"

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    November 16, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Right, not much of interest there. So… why post those here then?

  21. Laura said,

    November 27, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    This month's Mojo (a UK music magazine which, for some reason, I often find yields interesting linguistic data in its letters page) includes a letter from a reader wishing to correct an article about Kate Bush's album. The writer, Vidar Webjørnsen from Norway, says (extracted from a longer letter):

    "[Pete Paphides] informs us that the Sami in Finland have in excess of 50 words for snow. Actually, it's over 200. And they don't just live in Finland."

    Seems the Sami are the new Eskimo, in this respect.

  22. Curt Rice said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Markonsea said:

    "But – at least, until very recently – *all* Sami were reindeer breeders and enthusiasts!"

    Really? Could you elaborate on that claim a little bit, and maybe offer a source?

  23. Rodger said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 5:06 am

    I recently (before reading Lars's post above) discovered that the English language has about 40 words for "horse-drawn carriage", from "brougham" and "cab" to "trap" via "fly". This clearly indicates the central importance of this mode of transportation in Anglophone cultures.

  24. Keith D said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    It was once suggested to me that language developed to meet the needs of the users. A story goes that if one were listen to Greenlandic radio broadcasts, most sounds would be completely unintelligible to a speaker of West European languages, with the exception being numbers. Apparently Inuit have imported Danish numbers as they never developed their own words for quantities above 20. Traditionally, a group of 5 or 6 men might go off for 7 or 8 days to hunt, coming back with 2 or 3 animals to feed their family of 4 or 5. Who needs numbers above 20? However, it seems quite reasonable to have more words for snow in a community where the white stuff would play a bigger role in daily life.

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