We’re all familiar with the sense of vertigo that accompanies any attempt to parse a thick Scottish brogue in movies like Guy Ritchie’s Snatch or Irvine Welsh & Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. For those who are unfamiliar with either of these films, check out the clips below.
(Disclaimer: This excerpt contains expletives.)
(Disclaimer: This excerpt contains expletives. However, you will probably not be able to understand them.)
The Historical Thesaurus of Scotland, somewhat in the manner of the Oxford English Dictionary, includes historical usage as well contemporary and regional usage. It’s most likely fair to say that the majority of the words that made the list are probably not in the contemporary lexicon of the average Scottish citizen, given that the distinctions between Scottish dialects and standard English are in a state of continual erosion and homogenization.
The idea that the Inuits have 50 different words for snow originated in 1911, when anthropologist Frank Boas published his Handbook of North American Indians. Other scholars beg to differ on this point. But it’s not our purpose here to adjudicate a scholarly controversy amongst socio-linguists of the early 20th century.
Over the years the idea that “the Eskimo’s have X number of words for snow” has become a stock-phrase or shorthand deployed to describe or evoke the ways in which the forces that shape language are largely contingent on the geographical, historical, technological and cultural contexts in which we find ourselves.
In other words, the Maasai people of the Kenyan Savannah are not going to have 50 or 400 words for snow in their native language — because they’ve never seen snow.* Conversely, Inuits are not going to have native vocabulary handy to describe giraffes. They’ve never seen a giraffe.
Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world. All I know is what I have words for.”
The way you explain this to an 8-year-old is you tell them, “The eskimos have 50 different words for snow.”
As globalization and internet connectivity continue to integrate every crevice of our world inhabited by human beings, the constraints on language imposed by our geographical and cultural contexts begin to fade. This opens up new possibilities and introduces newly coined words and phrases to the language, but it also involves the slow extinction of regional dialects.
So, to use another stock phrase, you win some, you lose some. At least most of the old stuff will end up being recorded on the internet somehow or other, right? Or at least they’ll be embalmed in some old, dusty thesaurus at a university library — right?
Speaking of which — let’s review some of the Scot’s vocabulary for snow anthologized in The Historical Thesaurus of Scotland.
A child’s name for snow.
A fine rain or drizzle of sleet or snow.
Snow, the substance, viewed either as falling flakes, or as the layer of these formed on the ground, etc.
With the indefinite article and plural. An instance of snow.
Suffocation by snow.
Taboo usage: snow.
A quantity of rain or snow resulting from a storm.
The thesaurus mentions two types of snow: “dry drift” which is a powdery snow, and “skalva” which is a soft, flaky snow.
The thesaurus defines at least twenty-two terms used to describe “snowflake.”
Flaffin, flaucht, flauchin, flauchter, flechin, fleuk, flicht, flok, snaw-flake, snaw-flauchen.
A few of these–flechin, flicht, flauchin–may refer to soot or dust-motes. Whether or not these terms are understood to refer to snowflakes is contextual according to the thesaurus.
Figgerin, flitcher both refer to a “light snow-flake.”
Flichter means a small particle “as of snow.”
Spitters refers to small drops or flakes of wind-driven rain or snow.
Blett, flag, flagin, flukra, skelf, skovin all refer to “a large snowflake.”
A snow-ball is referred to as sna(w)-ba(w), snawball, snawie-ba. Snawballing, the thesaurus makes clear, is the verb form of the noun–it means “to throw a snow-ball.”
Slete, sneet, flup and sleek are all straightforward synonyms for sleet. The words flush, lapper, sleesh and spleiter are all snugly synonymous with slush. But there are at least 21 fine gradations of the sleet and slush, outlined below (or check them out here in the thesaurus).
Anything in a state of or resembling pulp, especially mud or snow beginning to melt.
By extension: mire, mud, slush. Sometimes in pl.
Slush, half-melted snow, used only of the broken ice and soft snow on running water.
Watery snow, esp. in a river.
Half-liquid snow or ice formed in early spring floating on the surface of a river and commonly thought to have risen from the river bed; a thin coating of newly-formed ice on water.
Watery snow, as in a pitcher, brook, etc.; also, softened ice.
Half-liquid snow or ice formed in early spring floating on the surface of a river and commonly thought to have risen from the river bed.
Slush, mire, a liquid mess.
A fall of snow which does not melt away quickly but lies long on the ground.
Damp weather, fine rain, sleet.
A mire of melting snow, slush.
That which causes slipperiness, slush, melting snow or the like.
Slush, half-melted snow.
Any wet mess, esp. slush, half-melted snow.
A fine rain, drizzle, occas. also of sleet or snow.
Also fig.; semi-liquid snow, slush.
Melted snow or ice, freq. that carried down in rivers, slush.
Liquid or moisture of any kind, especially snaw-broo, snow-; half [or wholly] -melted snow.
A strong blast, gust, flurry, as of driving wind, rain, sleet, etc., esp. thought of as buffeting the face.
Stock-storm, snow which lies unmelted on the ground for an unduly long time, looked on as a sign of more to come, a feeding-storm.
Fallen snow, esp. when lying in some quantity for a prolonged period, freq. in combs. feeding-storm, lying storm, stock-storm.
Fleecy, wet snow.
The words feevl, fyole, glaister, fyoonach, pewlin, scowder, scowtherin, scruif, siftin, skimmer, skimmerin, skinger, skirvin, snaw-grima, strinklin, and stroal are all different ways of talking about a light snowfall, thin snow cover, snowy frost etc.–with exceedingly fine gradations of signification distinguishing each word’s meaning from the others.
There are lots of other words for snow littered amongst the many regional Scottish dialects recorded in TheHistorical Thesaurus of Scotland. Check them out here.
*…because [the Massai people of the Kenyan savvana] have never seen snow OR they might only encounter it once in a lifetime as part of a freak occurence.
[The featured image of snow-fall introducing “421 Words For Snow Appear In New Scottish Thesaurus” is courtesy of Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images.]