Tall Tales: Frozen Sounds

Folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 1889F
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2022

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


  1. Frozen Words (Plutarch).

  2. An Italian Merchant in Poland (Italy).

  3. Unfrozen Words (France).

  4. Frozen Words (England).

  5. Baron Munchausen in Russia (England / Germany).

  6. The Post Horn (Germany).

  7. Paul Bunyan and the Year of the Hard Winter (North America).

  8. Voices in the Frying Pan (African American -- Mississippi).

  9. Link to Tall Tales: The Big Freeze. Folktales of type 1967.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Frozen Words


Applicable here is that saying of Antiphanes, which some one applied to Plato's pupils. Antiphanes said playfully that in a certain city words were frozen directly they were spoken, owing to the great cold, and were thawed again in the summer, so that one could then hear what had been said in the winter. So he said of the words which were spoken by Plato to young men, that most of them only understood them late in life when they were become old men.

An Italian Merchant in Poland


"You all are familiar with those splendid lies so well composed that they move to laughter. A very excellent one was but lately told me by a friend of ours who never suffers us to be without them."

Then the Magnifico Giuliano said: "Be that as it may, it cannot be more excellent or more ingenious than one with a fellow-Tuscan of ours, a merchant of Lucca, affirmed the other day as a positive fact."

"Tell it to us," added my lady Duchess.

The Magnifico Giuliano replied, laughing:

This merchant, so he tells the story, once finding himself in Poland, decided to buy a quantity of sables with the intention of carrying them into Italy and making great profit thereby. And after much effort, being unable to enter Muscovy himself (by reason of the war that was then waging between the King of Poland and the Duke of Muscovy), he arranged with the help of some people of the country, that on an appointed day certain Muscovite merchants should come with their sables to the frontier of Poland, and he promised to be there in order to strike the bargain.

Accordingly, proceeding with his companions towards Muscovy, the man of Lucca reached the Dnieper, which he found all frozen as hard as marble, and saw that the Muscovites (who on account of the war were themselves suspicious of the Poles) were already on the other bank, but approached no nearer than the width of the river.

So, having recognized each other, the Muscovites after some signalling began to speak with a loud voice, and to ask the price that they wished for their sables; but such was the extreme cold that they were not heard, for before reaching the other bank (where the man of Lucca and his interpreters were) the words froze in the air, and remained there frozen and caught in such manner that the Poles, who knew the custom, set about making a great fire in the very middle of the river; because to their thinking that was the limit reached by the warm voice before it was stopped by freezing, and the river was quite solid enough to bear the fire easily.

So, when this was done, the words (which had remained frozen for the space of an hour) in due course began to melt and to fall in a murmur, like snow from the mountains in May; and thus they were at once heard very well, although the men had already gone. But as the merchant thought that the words asked too high a price for the sables, he would not accept the offer and so returned without them.

Unfrozen Words


How Pantagruel, being at Sea, heard various unfrozen Words

When we were at Sea, Junketing, Tipling, Discoursing, and telling Stories, Pantagruel rose and stood up to look out; then ask'd us, Do you hear nothing, Gentlemen? Methinks I hear some People talking in the Air; yet I can see no body; Hark!

According to his Command we listened, and with full Ears suck'd in the Air, as some of you suck Oysters, to find if we could hear some Sound scattered through the Sky; and to lose none of it, like the Emperor Antoninus, some of us laid their Hands hollow next to their Ears: But all this wou'd not do, nor cou'd we hear any Voice.

Yet Pantagruel continued to assure us he heard various Voices in the Air, some of Men, and some of Women.

At last we began to fancy that we also heard something, or at least that our Ears tingled; and the more we listened, the plainer we discerned the Voices, so as to distinguish Articulate Sounds.

This mightily frighted us, and not without cause, since we could see nothing, yet heard such various Sounds and Voices of Men, Women, Children, Horses, etc. insomuch that Panurge cry'd out, Cods Belly, there's no fooling with the Devil; we are all beshit; let's fly. There is some Ambuscado hereabouts. Fryar Jhon, Art thou here, my Love? I prithee stay by me, old Boy: Hast thou got thy swindging Tool? See that it do not stick in the Scabbard; thou never scour'st it half as it should be. We are undone. Hark! They are Guns, Gad judge me; Let's fly, I do not say with Hands and Feet, as Brutus said at the Battle of Pharsalia, I say with Sails and Oars; Let's whip it away, I never find my self to have a bit of Courage at Sea : In Cellars and elsewhere I have more than enough: Let 's fly, and save our Bacon. I do not say this, for any Fear that I have; for I dread nothing but Danger, that I don't: I always say it, that shouldn't. The Free Archer of Baignolet said as much. Let's hazard nothing therefore, I say, lest we come off' bluely. Tack about! Helm a Lee! thou Son of a Batchelor. Wou'd I were now well in Quinquenois, tho' I were never to Marry. Haste away; let 's make all the Sail we can, they'll be too hard for us, we are not able to cope with them; they are ten to our one, I'll warrant you; nay, and they are on their Dunghil, while we do not know the Country. They'll be the death of us. We'll lose no Honour by flying; Demosthenes saith, That the Man that runs away, may fight another time. At least, let us retreat to the Lee-ward. Helm a Lee! Bring the Main-tack aboard! Hawl the Bowlins! Hoist the Top-gallants! We are all dead Men : Get off', in the Devil's Name, get off'.

Pantagruel, hearing the sad Outcry which Panurge made, said, Who talks of Flying? Let's first see who they are; perhaps they may be Friends: I can discover no body yet, tho' I can see a hundred Miles round me: But let's consider a little; I have read, that a Philosopher, nam'd Perron, was of Opinion, that there were several Worlds that touch'd each other in an Equilateral Triangle; in whose Centre, he said, was the Dwelling of Truth; and that the words, Ideas, Copies and Images of all things past and to come, resided there; round which was the Age, and that with Success of Time part of them us'd to fall on Mankind like Rheums and Mildews, just as the Dew fell on Gideon's Fleece, till the Age was fulfilled.

I also remember, continu'd he, that Aristotle affirms Homer's Words to be flying, moving, and consequently animated. Besides, Antiphanes said, that Plato's Philosophy was like Words which being spoken in some Country during a hard Winter, are immediately congeal'd, frozen up, and not heard; for what Plato taught young Lads, could hardly be understood by them when they were grown old: Now, continu'd he, we should Philosophise and Search whether this be not the Place where those Words are thawed.

You 'd wonder very much, should this be the Head and Lyre of Orpheus. When the Thracian Women had torn him to pieces, they threw his Head and Lyre into the River Hebrus; down which they floated to the Euxine Sea, as far as the Island of Lesbos, the Head continually uttering a doleful Song, as it were, lamenting the Death of Orpheus, and the Lyre, with the Wind's impulse, moving its Strings, and harmoniously Accompanying the Voice. Let's see if we cannot discover them hereabouts.

How among the Frozen Words, Pantagruel found some Odd ones.

The Skipper made answer; Be not afraid, my Lord, we are on the Confines of the Frozen Sea, on which, about the beginning of last Winter, happened a great and bloody Fight between the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates. Then the Words and Cries of Men and Women, the hacking, slashing and hewing of Battle-axes, the shocking, knocking and joulting of Armours and Harnesses, the neighing of Horses, and all other Martial Din and Noise, froze in the Air: And now the Rigour of the Winter being over, by the succeeding Serenity and Warmth of the Weather, they melt, and are heard.

By jingo, quoth Panurge, the Man talks somewhat like; I believe him; but couldn't we see some of 'em? Methinks I have read, that on the edge of the Mountain on which Moses received the Judaic Law, the People saw the Voices sensibly.

Here, here, said Pantagruel, here are some that are not yet thaw'd.

He then throw'd us on the Deck whole handfuls of frozen Words, which seem'd to us like your rough Sugar-Plumbs, of many Colours, like those us'd in Heraldry, some Words Gules, (This means also Jests and merry Sayings) some Vert, some Azure, some Black, some Or, (This means also fair Words;) and when we had somewhat warm'd them between our Hands, they melted like Snow, and we really heard them, but cou'd not understand them, for it was a Barbarous Gibberish; one of them only that was pretty big, having been warm'd between Fryar Jhon's Hands, gave a sound much like that of Chesnuts when they are thrown into the Fire without being first cut, which made us all start.

This was the Report of a Field-piece in its time, cry'd Fryar Jhon.

Panurge pray'd Pantagruel to give him some more; but Pantagruel told him, that to give Words, was the Part of a Lover.

Sell me some then, I pray you, cry'd Panurge.

That's the Part of a Lawyer, return'd Pantagruel; I wou'd sooner sell you Silence, tho' at a dearer Rate, as Demosthenes formerly sold it, by the means of his Argentangina or Silver Squinsey.

However, he threw three or four handfulls of them on the Deck, among which I perceiv'd some very sharp Words, and some bloody Words, which, the Pilot said, us'd sometimes to go back and recoil to the Place whence they came, but 'twas with a slit Wesand; we also saw some terrible Words, and some others not very pleasant to the Eye.

When they had been all melted together, we heard a strange Noise, Hin, hin, hin, hin, his, tick, tock, taack, brededin, brededack, frr, frr, frr, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, track, track, trr, trr, trr, trrr, trrrrrr, on, on, on, on, on, on, ououououon, gog, magog, and I do not know what other barbarous Words, which, the Pilot said, were the Noise made by the Charging Squadrons, the Shock and Neighing of Horses.

Then we heard some large ones go off like Drums and Fifes, and others like Clarions and Trumpets. Believe me, we had very good Sport with them. I wou'd fain have sav'd some merry Odd Words, and have preserv'd them in Oil, as Ice and Snow are kept, and between clean Straw:

But Pantagruel would not let me, saying, that 'tis a folly to hoard up what we are never like to want, or have always at hand, odd, quaint, merry and fat Words of Gules never being scarce among all good and jovial Pantagruelists.

Panurge somewhat vex'd Fryar Jhon, and put him in the Pouts; for he took him at his Word, while he dreamt of nothing less. This caus'd the Fryar to threaten him with such a piece of Revenge as was put upon G. Jousseaume, who having taken the merry Patelin at his Word, when he had overbid himself in some Cloth, was afterwards fairly taken by the Horns like a Bullock, by his jovial Chapman whom he took at his Word like a Man.

Panurge well knowing that threatened Folks live long, bobb'd, and made mouths at him, in token of Derision; then cry'd, Wou'd I had here the Word of the Holy Bottle, without being thus obliged to go farther in Pilgrimage to her.

Frozen Words


There are no books which I more delight in than in travels, especially those that describe remote countries, and give the writer an opportunity of shewing his parts without incurring any danger of being examined or contradicted. Among all the authors of this kind, our renowned countryman. Sir John Mandevile has distinguished himself, by the copiousness of his invention, and the greatness of his genius.

The second to Sir John I take to have been, Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, a person of infinite adventure, and unbounded imagination. One reads the voyages of these two great wits, with as much astonishment as the travels of Ulysses in Homer, or of the Red-Cross Knight in Spenser. All is enchanted ground, and fairy-land.

I have got into my hands, by great chance, several manuscripts of these two eminent authors, which are filled with greater wonders than any of those they have communicated to the public; and indeed, were they not so well attested, they would appear altogether improbable. I am apt to think the ingenious authors did not publish them with the rest of their works, lest they should pass for fictions and fables: a caution not unnecessary, when the reputation of their veracity was not yet established in the world. But as this reason has now no farther weight, I shall make the publick a present of these curious pieces, at such times as I shall find myself unprovided with other subjects.

The present paper I intend to fill with an extract from Sir John's Journal, in which that learned and worthy knight gives an account of the freezing and thawing of several short speeches, which he made in the territories of Nova Zembla. I need not inform my reader, that the author of Hudibras alludes to this strange quality in that cold climate, when, speaking of abstracted notions cloathed in a visible shape, he adds that apt simile,

"Like words congeal'd in northern air."

Not to keep my reader any longer in suspense, the relation put into modem language, is as follows:

We were separated by a storm in the latitude of seventy-three, insomuch, that only the ship which I was in, with a Dutch and French vessel, got safe into a creek of Nova Zembla, We landed, in order to refit our vessels, and store ourselves with provisions. The crew of each vessel made themselves a cabin of turf and wood, at some distance from each other, to fence themselves against the inclemencies of the weather, which was severe beyond imagination.

We soon observed, that in talking to one another we lost several of our words, and could not hear one another at above two yards distance, and that too when we sat very near the fire.

After much perplexity, I found that our words froze in the air, before they could reach the ears of the persons to whom they were spoken. I was soon confirmed in this conjecture, when, upon the increase of the cold, the whole company grew dumb, or rather deaf; for every man was sensible, as we afterwards found, that he spoke as well as ever; but the sounds no sooner took air than they were condensed and lost.

It was now a miserable spectacle to see us nodding and gaping at one another, every man talking, and no man heard. One might observe a seaman that could hail a ship at a league's distance, beckoning with his hand, straining his lungs, and tearing his throat; but all in vain:

Nee vox nee verba sequuntur.
Nor voice, nor words ensued.

We continued here three weeks in this dismal plight. At length, upon a turn of wind, the air about us began to thaw. Our cabin was immediately filled with a dry clattering sound, which I afterwards found to be the crackling of consonants that broke above our heads, and were often mixed with a gentle hissing, which I imputed to the letter s, that occurs so frequently in the English tongue.

I soon after felt a breeze of whispers rushing by my ear; for those, being of a soft and gentle substance, immediately, liquefied in the warm wind that blew across our cabin. These were soon followed by syllables and short words, and at length by entire sentences, that melted sooner or later, as they were more or less congealed; so that we now heard every thing that had been spoken during the whole three weeks that we had been silent, if I may use that expression.

It was now very early in the morning, and yet, to my surprise, I heard somebody say, "Sir John, it is midnight, and time for the ship's crew to go to-bed."

This I knew to be the pilot's voice; and, upon recollecting myself, I concluded that he had spoken these words to me some days before, though I could not hear them until the present thaw.

My reader will easily imagine how the whole crew was amazed to hear every man talking, and see no man opening his mouth. In the midst of this great surprise we were all in, we heard a volley of oaths and curses, lasting for a long while, and uttered in a very hoarse voice, which I knew belonged to the boatswain, who was a very choleric fellow, and had taken his opportunity of cursing and swearing at me, when he thought I could not hear him; for I had several times given him the strappado on that account, as I did not fail to repeat it for these his pious soliloquies, when I got him on ship-board.

I must not omit the names of several beauties in Wapping, which were heard every now and then, in the midst of a long sigh that accompanied them; as, "Dear Kate!" "Pretty Mrs. Peggy!" "When shall I see my Sue again!"

This betrayed several amours which had been concealed until that time, and furnished us with a great deal of mirth in our return to England.

When this confusion of voices was pretty well over, though I was afraid to offer at speaking, as fearing I should not be heard, I proposed a visit to the Dutch cabin, which lay about a mile farther up in the country. My crew were extremely rejoiced to find they had again recovered their hearing; though every man uttered his voice with the same apprehensions that I had done,

Et timidè verba intermissa retentat.
And try'd his tongue, his silence softly broke.

At about half-a-mile's distance from our cabin we heard the groanings of a bear, which at first startled us; but, upon enquiry, we were informed by some of our company, that he was dead, and now lay in salt, having been killed upon that very spot about a fortnight before, in the time of the frost. Not far from the same place, we were likewise entertained with some posthumous snarls, and barkings of a fox.

We at length arrived at the little Dutch settlement; and, upon entering the room, found it filled with sighs that smelt of brandy, and several other unsavoury sounds, that were altogether inarticulate.

My valet, who was an Irishman, fell into so great a rage at what he heard, that he drew his sword; but not knowing where to lay the blame, he put it up again. We were stunned with these confused noises, but did not hear a single word until about half-an-hour after; which I ascribed to the harsh and obdurate sounds of that language, which wanted more time than ours to melt, and become audible.

After having here met with a very hearty welcome, we went to the cabin of the French, who, to make amends for their three weeks silence, were talking and disputing with greater rapidity and confusion than I ever heard in an assembly, even of that nation. Their language, as I found, upon the first giving of the weather, fell asunder and dissolved.

I was here convinced of an error, into which I had before fallen; for I fancied, that for the freezing of the sound, it was necessary for it to be wrapped up, and, as it were, preserved in breath: but I found my mistake when I heard the sound of a kit playing a minuet over our heads.

I asked the occasion of it; upon which one of the company told me that it would play there above a week longer; "for," says he, "finding ourselves bereft of speech, we prevailed upon one of the company, who had his musical instrument about him, to play to us from morning to night; all which time was employed in dancing in order to dissipate our chagrin, á tuer le temps."

Here Sir John gives very good philosophical reason, why the kit could not be heard during the frost; but, as they are something prolix, I pass them over in silence, and shall only observe, that the honourable author seems, by his quotations, to have been well versed in the antient poets, which perhaps raised his fancy above the ordinary pitch of historians, and very much contributed to the embellishment of his writings.

Baron Munchausen in Russia

England / Germany

I left St. Petersburgh at the time of that singlular revolution when the emperor in his cradle, his mother, the Duke of Brunswick, her father, Field-Marshal Munich, and many others were sent to Siberia. The winter was then so uncommonly severe all over Europe, that ever since the sun seems to be frost-bitten. At my return to this place, I felt on the road greater inconveniencies than those I had experienced in my setting out.

One effect of the frost which I then observed, is rather an object for philosophical speculation. I travelled post day and night, and finding myself engaged in a narrow lane, I bid the postilion give a signal with his horn, that other travellers might not meet or stop us in the narrow passage. He blew with all his might, but all his endeavours were in vain. He could not make the horn speak, which, as he pretended to be a good performer, was as unaccountable to him, as to me, and rather unfortunately, for soon after we found ourselves in the presence of another coach coming the other way.

It was very troublesome for both parties in this horrid weather, for there was no proceeding either way, without taking the carriages to pieces and putting them together again, past each other. My poor postilion and every body was almost froze to death. we reached the much-looked-for inn at the end of our stage, without further accident, and well pleased and happy in our minds, we all of us hastened to warm and refresh ourselves.

The postilion hung his great coat and horn on a peg and sat down near the kitchen fire, to forget and drown his cares. I sat down on the other side doing the same.

Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng, teng, teng! We looked round, and now found the reason, why the po?tilion had not been able to sound his horn. His tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver, so that the honest fellow entertained us for some time with a variety of tunes , without putting his mouth to the horn. The king of Prusia's march -- Over the hill and over the dale -- An evening hymn, and many other favourite tunes came out, and the thawing entertainment concluded, as I shall this short account of my Russian travels with God bless Great George our King.

The Post Horn


There was once a very cold winter; and a coachman driving through a ravine in the Black Forest saw a carriage approaching him. He picked up his horn, wanting to give the other driver a signal to stop and let him pass by, but however hard the coachman blew, he could not get a single sound from the horn.

The other carriage came deeper and deeper into the ravine, and because neither of them could give way the coachman drove straight toward the other carriage, narrowly passing it by. To avoid any further unpleasantries, he took up his horn again and blew all the tunes into it that he knew, for he guessed that the horn was frozen, and he wanted to thaw it out with his warm breath. But it was all to no avail; it was so cold that no sound at all came forth.

Finally that evening the coachman arrived at the village where his horses were unhitched, and he was relieved by another fellow. He ordered a pint of wine to warm himself with, and because a wedding was being celebrated at the inn and the dining room was filled with guests, he took his wine into the kitchen, seated himself near the warm stove, hung his horn on a nail on the wall, and chatted with the cook.

-- But he was suddenly startled when the post horn began to play by itself. First of all it played several times the signal that coachmen usually use when someone is supposed to give way, and then it played all the tunes that he had blown into it on the way, and that had frozen inside, but on the warm wall were all thawing out and sounding forth, one after the other, for example: "You're Barely Thirty Years of Age," "You, You Lie Next to My Heart," "Tug, Tug, Tug, Little Girl," and other prankster songs. It ended with the chorale "All the Woods Are Quiet Now," for that was the last tune that the coachman had blown into his horn.

Paul Bunyan and the Year of the Hard Winter

North America

Now, this was the year which is mentioned in history as the Year of the Hard Winter. But the bitterest cold could not now chill the blood of Paul Bunyan's He-Men. They had never been so jolly as they were this Christmas, and they jigged and chortled when Paul Bunyan gave each of them a knife devised especially for pants-stagging. The great leader had cut out thousands of these excellent presents from two of Babe's old ox shoes. This was the merriest holiday season the camp had ever known, and even the in credible cold of New Year's Day did not lessen the noisy bunkhouse gayety.

On the last night of the old year the mercury in the great thermometer which hung on the camp office had dropped to four hundred degrees below zero. Then the tube burst, and no one could tell the temperature, but it got appreciably colder. The next morning the boiling coffee froze on the stove, despite the desperate stoking of the kitchen firemen, and the loggers had to drink hot brown ice for their morning's breakfast. But they tramped cheerfully to work, nevertheless, cracking their mittened hands together and stamping the ground as they went along.

They worked so hard to keep warm on this day that they talked and swore but little. This was fortunate. For on this incomparable New Year's Day every spoken word froze solidly in the air as soon as it was uttered. The next day the temperature rose, but the words remained frozen, and many a logger bumped his mouth by walking into the HELLOS and DAMNS which were solid in the air. But the hardy victims only laughed through their split lips at such accidents. These words all thawed out at once on a warmer day; they melted in one long-drawn-out, mournful echoing shout so unhumanly humorous in sound that the loggers rolled with laughter to hear it.

Voices in the Frying Pan

African American (Mississippi)

I have been so far up north until I couldn't understand anything anybody said. I got a gang of fryin' pans an' everybody I would meet I would hold it in front of them an' ketch their voices. The voices froze in the fryin' pan an' said, "Good morning."

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Revised June 2, 2022.