Swiftly falls snow, white as silver

4.12.10 § 2 commentarii

Like most of the country, Moriconium has until recently been under a blanket of snow. I do rather adore the snow, although only a very specific few subtypes of snow. Snow falling gently while I’m inside, in the warm and preferably with a glass of something warming, is fine. As is a crisp white blanket of new-fallen snow under a steely grey sky. Unfortunately, the most typical species of snow here in Moriconium over the past few years has been snow which has partially melted and then re-frozen overnight, becoming a treacherous death-trap of disguised ice. The novelty of snow wears off quickly when one falls upon one’s arse three times in ten minutes. My coccyx hasn’t been right since.

Happily, it’s pissed it down all day today, melting away all the snow. We’re back to a dreary, damp and ice-free seaside winter, so reassuring in its familiarity.

Nevertheless, snow can be one of the most beautiful natural phenonomena to occur in the British Isles. It’s unfortunate then, that phonoaesthetically, “snow” is such a bloody ugly word[1]. The Welsh word eira is far more fitting in my opinion. Finding cognates only in the other Brythonic languages (Breton erc’h and Cornish ergh: both phonemically /erx/, which rather like someone undergoing the Heimlich manoeuvre), it can be confidently traced back to a Proto-Brittonic *argyo-. Ultimately, the P-B form derives from the PIE *h2érĝ-, which (with varying suffixes) is also the root underlying various Indo-European words for “silver”: *h2érĝ-ṇt-o- gives Welsh arian, Latin argentum and Classical Armenian arcat’, while with the suffix *-u-ro- we have the Greek ἄργυρος and the suffix *-u-no gives Sanskrit árjunaḥ. Matasović (bless him), believes that this suffix variation in the daughter languages indicates that the PIE form was actually a heteroclitic stem. Unfortunately, Matasović sees heteroclites and ablauting paradigms pretty much everywhere. A somewhat more conservative (and realistic) idea is that we’re seeing a Caland-like alternation of suffixes, which indicates perhaps that the words are all independent formations on the same root, rather than a common inherited lexeme.

The communis opinio states that the root *h2erĝ- didn’t mean “silver” at all: rather it meant “white”. So silver is ’the white metal”, while snow is ’the white stuff”. Which, given that among the root’s other reflexes are Hittite ẖarkis “white” and Tocharian B ārkwi “white”, is pretty certain. So the Welsh word for snow has cognates meaning both “silver” and “white”: the Gaulish form argio- also seems to mean “white”. For example, the turbulent river Ariège in France is from the same root, probably *argyā- white water, perhaps. However, and quite interestingly, there is also a set of cognate IE words meaning “swift” which also point to a proto-form *h2erĝ-. Now, this could either be a homophonous but semantically quite separate root, or it could be a metaphorical extension of the basic meaning of “white” (consider how we describe something vanishing quickly as “disappearing in a flash”, perhaps?) Either way, it’s a fascinating example of the poetry in etymology.


1) In one of my constructed languages, Classical Tailancan, the word for “snow” is lāt (nom. sing.), which I also think is bloody ugly, but that’s the downside to modelling naturalistic soundchange. The parent language had *lawak-, which I rather like.

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§ 2 Response to “Swiftly falls snow, white as silver”

  • Bo says:

    Lovely piece. Always been partial to S. los, 'snow', talking of conlangs.

  • Frenchie says:

    Ooh me likey.

    Always had a soft spot for 'neige', myself. Hebrew 'sheleg' is as hopelessly ugly as 'snow', while Japanese 'yuki' is possibly my favourite.

    Have to agree with Bo that S. 'los' isn't too bad, although my preference as always is for Q. 'lossë'.

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