Snow, rain and language

It is or has been alleged that the Inuit people have a large number of words for snow, presumably different types of snow.

I was going to write a post about how this theory is connected, if at all, to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic-relativity hypothesis, about the relationship between culture and language, and especially whether and to what extent the language we learn affects the way we see the world.

The Germans have a word for the pleasure quite normal and nice people take in the misfortunes of others, and the word is schadenfreude.  The French have a phrase for knowing exactly what to do socially, and it’s savoir faire. We British have to borrow from these other languages to express these thoughts, but we could probably experience the feeling or admire the quality without having a specific word.

Or could we?

The idea that language constrains our thoughts seems to be behind the creation of the language Newspeak in George Orwell’s dystopia “1984”. The aim of Newspeak was to create a future where “there would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond [a citizen’s] power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable” (my italics.)

According to Wikipedia, the stronger or Orwellian version of the hypothesis (“The structure of anyone’s native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language”, my italics again) is “largely discredited.” Its authority for this statement is Steven Pinker’s 1994 book “The Language Instinct,” which I have not read. It is perhaps obvious that we invent new words for new things, and new refinements for old words.

As I said, I was going to write a post about the connection between this hypothesis and the number of words for snow in Arctic cultures… but I can’t because surely it’s the other way round. Reality, ie the importance of snow in the culture, affected the language, not vice versa.

It’s not surprising that snow is linguistically subdivided in snowy countries.

In the UK, on the other hand:

It’s raining, it’s pouring (“the old man is snoring” we used to sing)

it’s spitting (ugh)

it’s drizzling

it’s spotting

it’s raining cats and dogs

it’s coming down in stair-rods

the heavens opened

the clouds burst

it’s wet

there’s a smirr

caught in a shower

it’s dreich


tipping it down

coming down in torrents

the rain fell (interesting metaphor, when you think about it)…

What have I missed?

On a more disturbing note… have you ever wondered at the number of words and expressions we have in English for what happens when Person A, who is in authority, punishes Person B by hitting them, possibly with an implement? From slapping to thrashing to putting someone over your knee to getting six of the best… There are a lot more.

What does that say about our culture?

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Stephen Hall

    15th March 2022 at 9:45 am Reply

    Well done Penny for writing a blog on this subject and avoiding the fraught topic of political correctness!

    I agree that the importance of a thing to a particular culture would seem to be reflected in the number of words used to describe each minute subdivision of the thing. So an Inuit linguist studying English would correctly divine that we are obsessed not only with the weather but with horses (roan, gelding, bay …), dogs (have been watching a bewildering array of breeds in Crufts this week), and increasingly footballers (sweepers, wingers, keepers, registas, playmakers, centre halves, full backs …).

  • Stephen Sheridan

    22nd March 2022 at 2:21 pm Reply

    A good question Penelope

    On your disturbing note, I would say that any language which has multiple words for violence and oppression identifies that people who speak that language as being entirely human and a human language which doesn’t have those words is probably invented. Such is the sinful nature of humanity.

    And in reference to any hopes we might have had on some kind of Christian intervention on Putin from the Orthodox Church, those have been dashed by the Patriarch of Moscow, who obedient to the custom of his institution has come out in full support of Putin’s invasion and calling it a crusade against decadent western ideology with particular hatred reserved for “gay marches”. I wonder why the Patriarch seems so fearful of gay people and so supportive of a man who rides around the steppes bare chested showing off his torso? Hmmm…

    On the plus side it means other Orthodox constituencies have declared themselves sundered from Moscow.

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