There are lots of places in the world where snowfall wouldn’t warrant a second glance out of the window, let alone an excited blog post. However, being based in the south of England where snow only occurs once or twice each year (if at all), it’s a big event. Us Brits are renowned worldwide for our love of talking about the weather (even more so in lockdown, when there is little else to discuss), so as you can imagine, snow is top of the agenda this week.
Wessex’s director Jonathan, originally from Switzerland, is always prepared for snow with winter tyres and snow chains at the ready, despite rarely needing them in this part of the UK. It means he’s always smug when it does arrive though! Meanwhile lots of us southern Brits shudder at the thought of driving through a light blanket of snow. The country kind of comes to a standstill – trains are cancelled, roads are closed, and kids very much expect to stay home from school (and go sledging instead!).
I visited a friend in Rome back in February 2012, when it just happened to snow – the first time Rome had seen snowfall in thirty years. This was bad luck for me as a tourist, as absolutely everything was closed, from the big attractions like the Colosseum and the Forum (even the Trevi Fountain was cordoned off), to the restaurants and bars. Visiting the Castel Sant'Angelo, we were met with a sign that read “Closed due to natural disaster”. My friend found this hilarious as she is from a very snowy part of Canada! Perhaps this was a clumsy translation, or maybe this honestly reflected how the Italians felt about this weather – it was disastrous for them.
The Roman Forum in the snow, Feb. 2012
This got me thinking about how your geographical and cultural context affects your perspective on things and how this can potentially feed into language.
Is the story that “Eskimos have a hundred words for snow” really true?
Well, disappointingly the short answer is no. This idea came from a misinterpretation of some data from a study in the late 1800s. For one thing, there is no single language of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic (the term “Eskimo” is itself incorrect); there are several spoken by different communities, for example Inuit or Yupik. Furthermore, these languages are “agglutinated” languages, meaning that each time you describe a noun with an adjective, you are adding a suffix onto a root word and essentially making a new word each time. The options are almost limitless, so this isn’t really a good representation of the number of words they have for snow. This is probably where the misinterpretation occurred, and in fact there are likely around 15 true root words (or “lexemes”) for snow in one of these languages (Central Alaskan Yupik), including a word for snow carved into a block, and the crust that forms on top of snow – indeed more specific terms than are required in British English.
The theory brought about a great deal of discussion and formed the basis of the linguistic relativity principle – the idea that the language you speak influences the way you see the world. Without getting into the depths of this debate, we can certainly recognise that language is generally developed in a specific geographical context.
In a similar way, there is a word in Icelandic, Dalalæða, which describes a specific weather phenomenon where a thick ground-level fog creeps up from a valley and blankets the land, creating a waterfall effect over rocks and cliffs. Just like how, in Hawaiian, there are specific words for the different types of rain and wind, depending on what they are like, which islands they are affecting and what direction they are coming in from.
We don’t need a word for Dalalæða in the UK, because it doesn’t happen here. And despite our incessant conversations about the weather, we don’t really need a name for the particularly fine misty rain that covers the cliffs and mountains on the islands of Hawai’i and Maui (Lilinoe in Hawaiian).
We can find examples like this everywhere; take “haar” (fog) in Scotland, and “yakamoz” (sea sparkle) in Turkish, for example.
Moving away from the weather, there are plenty of examples of culture-specific activities that warrant their own term in some languages but not others. For example, the word “sobremesa” in Spanish is a unique term used to describe the relaxed time after dinner where everyone is still sitting around the table chatting. Although you’ll recognise this as something we do in the UK, it is a much more common tradition in Spain where more time is dedicated to mealtimes. Maybe the weather plays a part in this too – I’d probably be more inclined to stay at the table outside on a warm evening if I had the option, whereas cooler weather makes curling up on the sofa in front of the television infinitely more appealing.
In Sweden, “Fika” is an important part of local culture. Essentially a coffee break, it’s actually more of a state of mind, an attitude. It’s considered essential to make time for a hot drink and perhaps a sweet treat (like a “kanelbullar”) with friends, family or colleagues, and simply relax.
The Danish “hygge” is a term that has started to gain some popularity in the English language (maybe filling an important gap in the English vocabulary?). Hygge describes a feeling of cosiness or comfiness, whether alone or in company, that makes you feel especially content.
There are endless culturally specific words like these, which may be missing from – or simply not needed in – other languages. Terms like this are commonly known as “untranslatable” words, and the lack of an equivalent in another language can lead to word-borrowing (it might surprise you to learn that words like angst, tycoon, mosquito, tsunami and canyon were all borrowed into the English language). This is one way in which languages develop naturally over time, and English contains far more borrowed words than you might realise.
But does the lack of an equivalent term really mean that these words are “untranslatable”? Let’s delve into the “translatability” debate in our next blog post, where we can also take the opportunity to look at more fun examples of “untranslatable” words from other languages. There seems to be an abundance of really charming words for specific feelings, emotions and experiences – which you don’t realise are missing from your vocabulary until you hear them! My colleagues have come up trumps with some brilliant examples that I’ll look at next time. In case you know any good ones, let us know!