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Nancy Campbell on the Magic of Snow and Language

Posted on 1st November 2021 by Anna Orhanen

Our November Non-Fiction Book of the Month, Fifty Words for Snow, spans across the globe and different languages to explore the deep and dynamic relationship between climate and culture. In this exclusive piece, author Nancy Campbell talks about what inspired her to zoom in on how different languages talk about snow.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen, a boy is held prisoner in a great northern castle and tries to make sense of his enduring isolation by forming words from glistening fragments of ice. The Snow Queen tells Kay that when he can form the word “eternity” she will release him: she will give him the whole world – and a new pair of skates. Kay drags shards of ice around, creating many different words, but he can’t spell out the word “eternity”, however hard he tries. 

A few years ago I spent the winter on a tiny rocky island off the west coast of Greenland. Unlike Kay, my Arctic isolation was a choice, but like him, I made sense of my environment through language. During the polar darkness I began learning the West Greenlandic dialect, one word at a time, from the hunters I met when I walked down to the harbour in search of food. This new vocabulary was essential for communication, and it began to help me understand the culture too. Many of the words I learnt reflected long-standing traditional knowledge of weather patterns: naternik, drifting snow; nittaappoq, thick snow; putsinneq, slush on the ice; pukka, a snow crust; aperlaaq, new-fallen snow. For people who work far out from shore on mutable sea ice, such distinctions were essential to their survival.

Learning a new language can be life-saving. It can also be life-changing. The author J.R.R. Tolkien described his first encounter with Finnish in a letter to the poet W.H. Auden in the summer of 1953 as “like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.” Tolkien’s fondness for Finnish was to influence the imaginary languages of The Lord of the Rings. The many intoxicating wintery words in Finnish include tykky or tyykylumi (-lumi meaning snow): the rime that forms on tree bark. Sometimes the strange, ethereal tykky trees are so heavily matted with snow they bow under the weight of something that is so often perceived as weightless. Snow accumulates in fubsy clumps on the branches and the slender crowns slump downward, so the trees create enigmatic shapes, which appear almost on the verge of becoming animate in the short midwinter days and long dawns and dusks. The soft, round forms recall the shape of kuksa cups, made by the Sámi people from the burls on birch trees, or even the bulbous noses and plump white furry bellies of Tove Jansson’s Moomins.

Snow and the terms for it may vary, but the roots of the word tell stories of geographic connection too. It is possible to see back into the distant past and trace the historical movement of people through a single word: in Europe, for example, snow, snee, nieve, etc. all stem from the same root, the ancient Latin nix and Greek nipha – the initial s comes and goes, without concealing the close connection. The past is literally embedded in the deepest snowfields on the planet, which are a record of deep time. Year after year snow falls on the polar icecaps, and compresses into firn as it is covered by more snow. At the Russian research base, Vostok, in Antarctica, a core has been drilled which goes back 420,000 years. Layers deep in the core contain tiny pockets of air samples and microscopic dust which scientists can use like the growth rings of trees to date the snowfall and analyse climate change.

Changing climate is global. It imperils the harvest in the apple orchards of Kashmir, and causes the glaciers of the Rwenzori range which borders Uganda and DR Congo to retreat. It shifts the jäätee (ice roads) that cross between the Estonian mainland and islands, and the spring trails of Sámi reindeer herders. The Sámi have an intimate understanding of snow, with terms for how snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density, and temperature, and now the new phenomenon of rain on snow: the dreaded gaskageardni (refrozen wet snow). Since Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Snow Queen the concept of eternity on this planet has dramatically altered. Inevitably, turning a microscope on the language of cold climates also gives us a glimpse of the future, and what humans will miss, as so many countries see fewer and fewer snowflakes falling, and some years now, none at all. 

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