December 02, 2007

The effects of global warming on vocabulary

It's been a while since we had a "Snowclone blindness" story. So to renew the appeal of this perennial favorite, we bring you Elizabeth Day, "My voyage north into a land of light", The Observer, 12/2/2007:

The Sami people are fascinating to talk to - like the Inuit, they have many words for 'snow', though with the damage wrought by global warming, they have lost quite a few of them.

But perhaps they now have a wider range of words for "slush"? A Finnish friend once told me, in a discussion of cross-country ski waxing, that Finnish snow is much more uniform than snow in the American northeast, since temperatures that swing above and below freezing have complicated effects on frozen precipitation and its residues.

It seems likely that Ms. Day's observation is a pure expression of a journalistic cliché, without any direct connection to facts of any kind, whether lexicographic or climatological. But if you have any actual information about the Sami snow vocabulary and its recent evolution, please let me know.

Rob Balder at PartiallyClips has a topical strip:

[Hat tip: Jeremy Hawker]

[Update -- Ray Girvan writes:

I don't know anything about Sami snow vocabulary, but Nils Jernsletten and Pekka Sammallahti seem to be the names to check out.

As the refs I can find are non-English and/or behind paywalls, I can't tell what their stance is, but I've seen them quoted in contexts supporting snowclone-style factbites about Sami vocabulary (whether concerning snow, landforms or reindeer).

I'm always willing to be convinced. But whatever the recent warming of their environment, it seems improbable that the Sami have already "lost quite a few" of their words for snow. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 2, 2007 06:48 AM