Saturday, January 23, 2016

How Do You Say "Snow" in Latin? In Indo-European?

Since I'm sitting looking out the window at a blizzard unfolding, I was reflecting on the word for snow in Latin and how it survives in related languages.

My car. Right now.
The word for snow in Latin in nix (nivis in the genitive case). Based on the nominative form nix we might assume the word is from the root nig- or nic- (compare rex, regis, 'king' and pax, pacis, 'peace'). But the genitive form nivis seems to imply that the root is niv-, also implied by the adjective niveus, 'snowy-white'.

On the other hand, the Latin verb 'to snow' is ninguo, ninguere

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Our English word snow is a cognate with nivis, sharing the n and the w sound (v was pronounced as a w in Classical times).  This would seem to be yet further evidence that the original Indo-European root indeed was niv-.

But then the Romance languages themselves muddy the waters.  In Spanish we have nieve, a vote for niv-. Italian has neve. But then French has neige. Romanian has nins, but also the word zăpadă, which means snow after it has fallen on the ground. But the verb 'to snow' in Romanian in ninge

The solution to this mystery comes when we broaden the study to the wider Indo-European language family. 

When I embark on a philological adventure, I run straight to Lithuanian. Somehow that language preserved a baffling degree of linguistic antiquity. I have a Lithuanian friend, Elisa, an astounding linguist who speaks her native Lithuanian, but also Russian, Spanish, French, Esperanto, and English.

The word for snow in Lithuanian is sniegas.

The Russian word is снег (sneg).

Scholars of Indo-European have concluded that the original Indo-European word for snow has the root form *sneigwh. Some languages kept the initial s. Others preserved the g in various forms. Other forms lost the g but kept the w.

One thing we can conclude from the existence of an Indo-European word for snow is that they saw the stuff wherever their homeland was. Unfortunately, this fact does not really tip the scales at all for the various proponents of either an Anatolian origin or the Pontic Steppe. 

But either way, it's amazing to consider that as much as ten thousand years ago, one of my distant ancestors looked out the opening of her tent and saw a scene similar to what I see out my window. She called the stuff *sneigwh. I still call it snow.

For your amusement, my Latin language version of "Do You Want To Build a Snowman?"

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