Posts Tagged ‘linguistic relativity’

Some Random Thoughts on Snow Words

I just got a text message from my sister.  “Snow’s here!” 

It has been snowing all day, and in some instances, the snowflakes have been the biscuit-sized conglomerations that say, “Hey, it’s too warm to snow.”  But in the last hour, the temperature has dropped, and the pear tree outside my study window now looks like this: 

There is a myth that Eskimos have a very large number of words for snow.  In fact, English has just as many, or more, words for snow as most of the Inuit languages that can be lumped together by the morphologically challenged and called “Eskimo.”  People who live in snow-intensive climates are just as likely as we are to think of compounds, like wind-snow, snow flurries, snow plow, snow suit . . . you get the idea . . . but they’re not really coming up with new words for frozen precipitation.  This is somehow disappointing, because I think we need to differentiate between this morning’s desultory, quickly melting stuff, and tonight’s thickly falling flakes.

Ten thousand years ago, when an ice age crawled across the planet and I was the student of George P. Winship, Jr., I started reading the linguistic theories of Benjamin Whorf.  The short version of Whorf’s life-work seems blindingly obvious:  language both describes our worlds and shapes them.  To put it slightly differently, the words with which we think and talk about something affect the thing itself, or at least the thing as it exists for us.

This is the theory of linguistic relativity, and it suffered a lapse in the mid-twentieth century, only to rebound when people realized that the world really isn’t big and simple after all, and the relationship between language and, well, everything, is insanely complicated.  The disturbing truth is a kind of Von Heisenberg principle of linguistics:  because we have to use words to study things and ideas, we shape the ideas and things with the words. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a turdblossom is a turdblossom.

Which leads us by circuitous routes back to snow.  “Snow” is fluffy, white, pure, feathery, delicate, and not mixed with sleet.  It floats, drifts, and wafts; it never pelts, pounds, drums, or soaks.  It falls.  Snow is silent, blanketing, a coverlet on the landscape.  Its crystalline nature sparkles, glints, and shimmers.  It transforms the landscape, thereby making the song “Winter Wonderland” possible.  It can be built into snowmen, snow women, and snow dogs.  (Also, if you are MY children, snow snakes, snow space aliens, and snow ramps to launch snow saucers into snowbanks.) 

Despite the bulky image of the snowplow, the words for snow are mostly of a twinkly, airy-fairy nature, which is all very well until the squirrels launch themselves into the pear tree, starting an avalanche.  I have been content, this afternoon, to observe the snowfall, the gentle rhythm of the downy flakes described by Robert Frost as he stopped in his neighbor’s woods.  This evening, though, I find myself chortling and humming happily to myself because of that most fabulous of flake-related fantasies — my cell phone has just informed me that NRCC is closed tomorrow, and I have my favorite snow-word of all:  snow day!

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