Politics and Elections

How do you write word “snow” in different languages of Europe

By: Vibor Cipan Published on: February 10, 2018, and filed under Science and health Tagged by: , , ,
  • Germanic and (Balto-)Slavic origin is likely from the Proto-Indo-European “*sneygʷʰ-“
  • Most language variants could be tracked back to the Proto-Indo-European *snígʷʰs
  • Outliers: Basque, Hungarian, Turkish, Greek, Albanian, and Maltese
Word "snow" written in different European languages. Snow in different languages of Europe. Word "snow" written in different European languages. Snow in different languages of Europe.

What are the origins of the word "snow" and how is snow written in different European languages? This data visualization and blog post answers those and other related questions.

This post is also available in: hrvatski (Croatian)

With winter still reigning in the northern hemisphere, I look at how the word “snow” is written in different European languages and visualize it on the map of Europe while exploring etymological roots and their meanings. While some of the results are expected, there are some interesting and exciting outlier cases! So, let’s go and explore how the word snow in different languages of Europe looks like!

Word "snow" written in different European languages. Snow in different languages of Europe.
Word “snow” written in different European languages. Snow in different languages of Europe.

Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages

Naturally, similarities are noticeable within same language families – for example, Slavic countries are using words “snijeg“, “sneg”, “snih” or “снег” for snow in different languages.

Germanic countries are using variants like “Schnee“, “snee” and “snije” – there are some differences between the groups so you can clearly see that words from Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and even Icelandic, are more similar among themselves.

Germanic and (Balto-)Slavic origin is probably from the Proto-Indo-European word “*sneygʷʰ-“.

Romanesque languages are using variants like “neige”, “nieve“, “neve” – with the notable exception of the Romanian language which uses the word “zăpadă” – similar to the Slavic verb meaning “to fall” (zapadati, napadati). However, I just learned, thanks to Reddit user jondevries, that the word “nea” is also used, especially in expressions like “fulgi de nea” (snowflakes).

Origins of the Romanesque variants are seemingly related to Latin nix, nivem (meaning “snow”).

Outliers: Basque, Hungarian, Turkish, Greek…

However, there are several interesting outliers on the map.

Basque language

Basque language word for snow is “elurra/elura” and it originates from the From Proto-Basque *eɫhur̄,

What intrigued me was the apparent similarity between the Basque language “elurra” and the Welsh word “eira”. However, it seems that there is not a real relationship. It seems that Welsh “eira” is derived from Proto-Brythonic *argyos (“snow”) and Proto-Celtic *argyos (meaning “white”), originating from the same stem as *argantom ( meaning “silver”).

Hungarian language

Hungarian word “hó” has at least two possible etymological roots. The first one is from Proto-Uralic *kume ( meaning “thin snow”). And the second one is from Proto-Uralic *kuŋe. That resembles the modern-day Hungarian word “hold” (meaning “moon”). Since the Moon is silver/white, it can add to the perception of the snow. It also relates to the Estonian and Finnish word kuu which means “snow”, but it was also the name of the mythical Finnish goddess of Moon.

Greek language

The Greek word “χιόνι” is derived from the Ancient Greek word “χιών” (read as “khiṓn” and meaning “snow”).

Turkish language

The Turkish word “kar” comes from the Old Turkic ??‎ (read as “kar” and meaning “snow”). It is also related to Proto-Turkic *kār, *Kiār (again, meaning “snow”) and possibly to Proto-Altaic *k`i̯ā́ra (*k`i̯ā́ra) (meaning “hoarfrost”). Literature sources suggest a possible relationship with Proto-Mongolic *karig (meaning “strong coldness”).

Albanian and Maltese languages

Albanian word “borë” derives from Proto-Albanian *bārā, from *bera (meaning “to fall”). What intrigued me here was the fact that Albanian “borë” appears to be similar to the Maltese language word “borra”. It is interesting that the Maltese language is the only official Semitic language in the European Union. The language itself originated from the Siculo-Arabic, the extinct variety of Arabic language. However, the concrete etymology of the word “borra” is not clear. And all that remains is the possibly coincidental resemblance to the aforementioned Albanian “borë”.

Croatian “bura”?

Also, there are no etymological relations between “borë” and “borra” with the Croatian word bura (meaning “bora”; for strong wind). Croatian “bora” originates from the Proto-Slavic *bur’a.

According to Wiktionary, interesting non-Slavic cognates include Old Norse byrr (meaning “fair wind”), Latin “furō” (meaning “I rage, rave” – similar to English “furious”), and Sanskrit भुरति (bhurati, meaning “to stir, palpitate”). Very interesting perspective and how the word snow in different languages of Europe came to be.

Map with etymological focus – putting together countries and languages based on their “true” etymological origin

When I posted the link to this article on Twitter, Bojan Glavašević, a Croatian linguist and a politician gave me an idea. He suggested that he would color the map a bit more differently, taking into account the original etymology of the words.

I considered his suggestion and created a new map. So, here it is for your viewing pleasure.

Map of the word "snow" shown in a more etymological focus - putting together countries and languages based on their "true" etymological origin. Snow in different languages of Europe.
Map of the word “snow” shown in a more etymological focus – putting together countries and languages based on their “true” etymological origin. Snow in different languages of Europe.

Keep in mind that even the red parts of the map, could, in fact, be colored as green since the variants of neve“, “neige“, “neu” – originate form the common Latin word “nix”, “nivis”. Whereas “nix” originates from the from Proto-Italic *sniks (stem *sniɣʷ-) and from Proto-Indo-European *snígʷʰs.

Pretty cool, right?