Nancy Campbell has been a writer on my radar for such a long time now, but I had yet to pick up one of her books – until, that is, a gorgeous hardback edition of her newest effort, Fifty Words for Snow, landed on my doorstep. It really appealed to the cold weather enthusiast in me, and it felt like a wonderful choice to incorporate into my autumnal reading, particularly as the days are getting steadily colder.
The idea for Fifty Words for Snow was born from Campbell’s research on ice. She was a Writer in Residence in Greenland during the winter of 2010, at the most northerly museum in the world, and her surroundings sparked this interest within her. Much of her work since – a decade spent on the ‘changing language and landscape of the Arctic’ – has revolved around cold weather, and what it means to us.
At this point in her life, Campbell tells us in her introduction, ‘… I was seeking to escape the distractions of a capital city. I needed white noise… There is much poignant art and literature about polar purity and silence, but the longer I spent among the snow [in Greenland], the more I suspected such tropes are born of luxury and distance. It is a view that overwrites the peopled landscape, ignores the tracks of sleds and snowmobiles that cross it, the busy burrows and root systems beneath it. As time passed and I looked more closely, I realised snow does not always appear white. As I listened more carefully, I realised that snow was not silent.’
As its title indicates, Fifty Words for Snow gives fifty international words for snow, many of them denoting very specific kinds. Campbell ‘digs deep into the meanings and etymologies, the histories and the futures of fifty words for snow from across the world, using them as clues to the many ways in which we are all connected to one another and to our planet.’ She writes about the shifting landscapes, as snow patterns change across the world: ‘Just as the ecosystem is changing, so are the languages that describe it and the way they are understood.’ Of her project, and her sustained interest within it, Campbell explains: ‘The process of tracing a single theme across many languages new to me seemed a powerful way to overcome the borders that were going up around the world.’
In her introduction, Campbell notes that ‘every language and culture has its own word for the magical, mesmerising flakes that fall from the sky.’ The words which the author has drawn together here come from a wealth of different languages and cultures: they range from Latvian and Scots, to Thai and Kashmiri; from Maōri and Mongolian, to Newfoundland English and Faroese. Some of the languages which Campbell has chosen to use are endangered, sometimes used by just a single community.
Each word which Campbell writes about – all of them randomly rather than geographically ordered, which I found an interesting touch – forms a short yet precise chapter. Some of these chapters, indeed, are only a paragraph or two long; others are far more detailed. Each begins with the chosen word and the language which it comes from, and then gives its specific translation, some of which are wonderfully precise. The Icelandic hundslappadrífa, for instance, means ‘snowflakes big as a dog’s paw’. In Finnish, tykky means ‘thick snow and frost that accumulates on tree branches and other structures.’ The Japanese word yuki-onna denotes a snow-woman, whose ‘skin is cold; her hair is silver; she dresses in white.’
Around the world, snow ‘may be welcomed, feared, played with or prized.’ Campbell is constantly aware of the reliance which different cultures have upon the snow. The Sámi language, for instance, ‘reflects the herders’ intimate relationship with their environment. The rich terminology for snow and ice includes words to describe the way snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density and temperature.’
Throughout, Campbell touches upon so many subjects. She writes about shepherds in the Scottish Borders, Greenlandic microbreweries, snowboarding, environmentally friendly fake snow made specifically for use on film sets, polar exploration, the building of igloos, avalanche prevention, and even the inspiration of snowy climates on the flags of several countries.
Fifty Words for Snow is both thoughtful and thorough. Campbell’s prose is lyrical, and holds such beauty about it. This work of non-fiction is clearly a labour of love, and it is a perfect choice to dip in and out of or, indeed, to read all in one go. Campbell’s book is far-reaching; she has tapped into so many languages and cultures, and gives fascinating details throughout. It will certainly make a lovely gift for the festive season, and there is something wonderfully comforting about it, too.