Sunday, November 23, 2008

Who'd have thought it?

If Sapir & Whorf had been Inuit or Yup'ik or Aleut, how much time would have been wasted talking about all those English words for snow (i.a. Artificial snow (aka Grits), Blizzard, Blowing snow, Chopped powder, Columns, Corn, Cornice, Crud, Crust, Dendrites, Depth hoar, Finger drift, Firn, Flurry, Freezing rain, Graupel (aka Snow pellets), Ground blizzard, Hail, Hailstorm, Heavy crud, Ice, Lake effect snow, Needles, Packed powder, Packing snow, Penitentes, Pillow drift, Powder, Rain & snow mixed (aka Sleet, Ice pellets), Rimed snow, Slush, Snirt, Snow squall, Snow storm, Snowdrift, Snowflake, Soft hail, Surface hoar, Watermelon snow, Wind slab)?

It's snowing here.  Back in my electronic music days, I was obsessed for a time with trying to get sounds out of snowflakes, not the sounds they make when they hit surfaces in aggregate form, but the individual sounds of each vibrating crystal.  Many years later, this became a serious interest of scientists and mathematicians, and the sounds of ringing snowflakes are now available, amplified and transposed downward into audible range.  I find these sounds beautiful but somewhat disappointing because they are essentially static, musically-speaking.  They are divorced of the narrative thread into which snowflakes enter our lives.  Just think of that first line of Frank O'Hara's Wind (To Morton Feldman), the text Feldman used in his Three Voices:  "Who'd have thought that snow falls..."


Samuel Vriezen said...

Hi Daniel, do you happen to have any links to online soundfiles?

Daniel Wolf said...


Sorry, I don't, but I'll do some searching; the topic was covered in the big science magazines in the late '90s.

Actually, I just found this item:

which seems to indicate that chrystallization is accompanied by the transmission of radio waves. This, which is something different from ringing the snowflakes like bells, still sounds like potential music to me.

Anonymous said...

I think this might be a very interesting sound. Since I'm really into sound creation and playing - not only musically, like a toy (haha) - with it, I would really love to get a sample of it and try to use it in my music.

I'll search around. Hope I get something interesting.
And, maybe if I could get their static characteristic out and make it more interesting... I could show you if you wish!

Best wishes!
Breno Ronchini

Anonymous said...

I've tried searching too, but with no success.

As a side note: if you're a musician and would like to make music out of the sounds of different snowflakes... would you have sounds for all those words for snow and color names for white? :)

Daniel Wolf said...

Ren B:

Lexica in languages are indefinitely extensible, that is, the speaker will have all the words he or she needs to use. English speakers who live near snow have many more words for snow than those who live in the tropics. So if a composer (a) noticed and (b) had to name X sorts of snow or hues of white, then she or he would have them. It's a bit like the ever-larger boxes of crayolas. When a kid moves from the 64-color crayon box to the 64-color box, he or she will inevitably assimiliate all the new names. Aqua, salmon, etc.. amd presto, now the kid has 64 color words.

This is why the whole "Eskimo words for snow myth" is a problematic meme. (That said, there are active disputes about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at a deeper level; the case of the Pirahãs of Brazil presenting a particularly interesting challenge).

Diane Dehler said...

The discussion of snow brings to mind the book "Smilla's Sense of Snow" which entered the language of snow from a literary perspective. How fascinating to thinking of hearing it.