At the Wording Desk
Névé, A Rare Snow Word
What did the Alaskan prostitute give her customer? A snow job. What did the Chernobyl prostitute give her customer? A glow job. The most frequent snow job of unlettered pop word study is the often-repeated error that the Inuit people have 69 words for snow. It’s wrong because the many snow expressions in their languages, such as Inuktitut, are not technically words; many of them are sentences, due to the structure of such northern tongues. But all that is explained in other volumes of niveous trivia (from classical Latin niveus ‘snowy, snow-white, pertaining to snow’).
My contention in this modest bit of wordlore is simple: English, not Inuktitut, may well have more than seventy terms for various forms of snow or snow-related entities.
In this piece and several more columns to follow this month and in January of next year, my purpose is to augment your hibernal word hoard, to acquaint you with some of the rarer, more exquisite terms lifted from my verbal snow-trunk.
Névé: First Snow Word
Nowadays névé (English borrowed from French) means an area of accumulated older compressed snow above or at the head of a glacier. Perennial névé often blankets high basins or cirques. Cirque is a technical term in glaciology, also borrowed into English directly from French. Cirque means “a deep steep-walled basin high on a mountain usually shaped like half a bowl and often containing a small lake, caused especially by glacial erosion, and usually forming the blunt head of a valley,” so states Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
But the history of the word névé and its protean historical forms are as fascinating to me as what the word itself denotes. In the French-speaking areas of the Alps, névé (original meaning ‘snow’) is a direct descendant of the Latin word for snow: nix, nivis. Alpine French took the Latin stem nivis directly and dropped the Latin declensional genitive /s/ to get *nivi. Then both Latin vowels were extended from i-sounds to e-acute sounds to give the modern reflex, névé.
Névé is a form that underwent far less transformation than the standard French word for snow, neige, which is also derived from the Latin word nix, nivis, in a complex, serial metamorphosis of pronunciatory alterations.
Its Snowy Timeline
Forty thousand years ago, the word snow began as a Proto-Indo-European root with two reflexes, one *nigwh- without initial /s/ and another *snigwh- with /s/. Latin languages (Latin nix, French neige) used the *nigwh- root. Teutonic, Scandinavian, and Slavic tongues adopted the *snigwh root (English snow, German Schnee, Swedish snö, Russian sneg').
100 B.C.E.: Classical Latin nix, nivis
C.E. 1080: Old French neif, noif
C.E. 1171: Old French neu
C.E. 1350: Old Northern French nive
C.E. 1300–1400 French forms: In this century, perhaps, French speakers felt a need to differentiate the pronunciation of their word for snow from their words for nut: noix and noiz. Noix and nive began to suffer what is called in linguistics homophonic collision. Both words were used in a very similar manner in that era. Spoken context usually provided the correct meaning of the similar sounding words, but, often enough, French speakers had to add semantic identifier tags such as *neev (I mean the kind that grow on trees). After too many qualifying addendal phrases are added to a word, speakers solve the bother in several ways. A common solution is to alter the pronunciation of one of the troublesomely similar-sounding terms. French linguists posit that nive was deliberately elongated to neige to unscramble this similarity of pronunciation, but this change had a bit of historical, phonological help too.
C.E. 1431–1485: French poet Francois Villon wrote his most popular ballad “Des dames du temps jadis” with its equally famous refrain, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” ‘But where are the snows of yesteryear?’
How Did It Befall that French Nive Became Neige?
The altering of nive to neige was also influenced by a frequentative variant of the common snow verb in various medieval Romance languages. The standard snow verb was: nevar in Portuguese, Catalan, and Spanish; nevre in Provençal; never in Gallo-Roman—all derived from the Late Latin verb nevere and its classical Latin ancestor nivare.
In Late Latin a frequentative form of the snow verb arose, nivicare. At first nivicare meant ‘to snow frequently, to snow for a long time.’ As so often happened in the history of Romance frequentative verbs, through time a generalization of meaning arose. Nivicare and its other forms such as nevigare (soft g) came to mean simply ‘to snow,’ and then the v-sound disappeared because it was so lightly spoken.
The Final Neige Result
The stem of nivare, namely nivic- could be transformed in some dialectic pronunciations from * “nivitch-” to “nividge-” to the soft-g sound forms “nivige-” to “neige.” Et voilà! Whatever the cause, snow began to be spelled and pronounced naige (C.E. 1329), and then neige (C.E. 1461).
The dates beside all these words merely indicate their first appearance in French print, either in handwritten manuscripts or printed matter that has survived. They do not tell us when, precisely, French speakers first used such forms. Often spoken words began hundreds of years before they made it into print or into any written record.
An apt wrap to this wintery essay shall be these three lines from Tennyson’s In Memoriam:
“Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.”
Bill Casselman, December 08, 2016
Text copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman
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