An Icelander's Sense of Snow

It's a cliché about the languages of cold, northern countries: they have a thousand words for snow, but no word for leveret. Or something equally stupid. But in the case of Icelandic, it's definitely true. Well, not a thousand words, but really quite a lot. I was having a conversation yesterday with the mother and her parents, about different sorts of snow and the words Icelandic has to describe them, and the minute specifics of when you would use these words. Both of the grandparents used to be Icelandic teachers and are of the generation that hardly speaks any English, and the grandfather especially knew lots of terms for snow that even the mother had never heard of before. 

And then they said to me, "There aren't many words for snow in English, are there?" 

"No," I said, and started counting on my fingers. "Well, there's snow, that's one. And... um. Wait, there must be more than that."

But try as I might, I couldn't think of another word for snow. I was convinced that there must be one, so I went downstairs to solve my problems with the internet. I still couldn't find one. How is it possible that English, surely one of the most synonym-rich languages in the world, only has one word for snow? It's not like we don't get snow in Britain. I think it's a bit lexically embarrassing. After a while, I thought of slush, as used to refer to wet, half-melted snow, but I don't think that really counts. Then I managed to find the word firn, which apparently is a sort of compacted snow / ice. This is not exactly in everyday parlance. And that's the best I could do. Wait, blizzard as well, I suppose.

Going through my dictionary file on my computer though, I can find at least fifteen Icelandic snow-words, and I know some were mentioned yesterday that aren't in my file. My favourite is skafrenningur, which means when there's loose, powdery snow on the ground and the wind whips it up so it's all swirling around in the air. English-speakers of the world, I think we should make an effort to assimilate this word.

As a matter of curiosity I just put leveret into my online Icelandic dictionary, and it came up with unghéri. So Icelandic does have a word for leveret, but it is a rubbish word.

P.S. I have used 'snow' twelve (now thirteen) times in this post, not counting the title. Because I had no choice!

No comments:

Post a Comment