January 05, 2004

Snow in New Yorkish

The efforts of anthropologists and linguists starting with Laura Martin and including our own Geoff Pullum to debunk the claim that Eskimos have an inordinate number of words for snow appear to have had an impact. The theme is evidently too attractive to be discarded, so Eskimos have now been replaced with New Yorkers.

A piece by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times ("Falling Physics, When the Weather Outside Is Frightful", New York Times Dec. 23, 2003) begins:

According to legend, New Yorkers have hundreds of names for snow, depending on whether it is the stuff under the spinning tire of a car trying to escape being plowed in, the puffy or sticky mound on your snow shovel just as you begin to ponder the statistics of heart attacks, the streaks flying like sprites across an airport runway or the missiles stinging your face as you trudge up an urban canyon under a load of packages, the goop of suspicious integrity lying in wait as you step off the curb.
Unfortunately most of these linguistic riches are unprintable here.

For some actual facts on snow words in Eskimo, check out Tony Woodbury's discussion of Central Alaskan Yup'ik and Stuart Derby's list for West Greenlandic. In case anyone is interested, I've written a short piece on The Solid Phase of Water in Carrier [PDF file], which discusses snow and ice and such in a very different language spoken in a cold place. I don't know of any reliable information on words for snow in the language spoken by the aborigines of New York. What language that might be is unclear, judging from the mixture of languages and cuisines in the restaurant in this photograph, which I took on my last expedition to New York.

Signs on the wall of sushi restaurant  in New York City

[The Hebrew says "Shalom Kosher".]

Posted by Bill Poser at January 5, 2004 08:15 PM