Weather and Vocabulary

Yesterday, I talked about narrative uses of weather. When I discussed this with my mother the linguist, she didn’t hesitate to point out another—the interesting things that weather does to a cultural vocabulary.

There’s an Old English word, wederian. It means ‘to be good weather.’ Think about this a bit. What does it say about that part of the world, that they need a verb for this sort of thing?

We’re not going to talk about Inuit words for snow here, because the number usually listed is greatly exaggerated (the current count for root words is three, the language is like a Lego set with its root words so the number of roots that could be stuck together to make additional words is infinite, it’s been debunked, let’s leave it), but there are a number of languages that do have individual words for a large number of similar weather patterns. Winds, for instance, pick up names like they pick up dust; five minutes in Wikipedia gives me bora and mistral, khamsin and simoom, sirocco and shamal, marin and levant. You can’t have the words if you don’t have the wind.

And then there are slang terms. You get the ones that spread, like mackerel sky and mares’ tails, or anvil clouds—but then you also get people’s own colorful expressions, like my family’s use of “aggressive mist” to cover situations in which there’s a lot of water in the air but it hasn’t quite reached the point of being rain (and my attempts to introduce “hummingbird mist” as a term for the most rainlike of said aggressive mist—anyone who does not understand why has never had prolonged exposure to hummingbirds). Note: “under the weather” doesn’t count, even if it does invoke images of dark nimbus clouds—that’s weather as in weathering, not weather as in “will there be weather today?”

What about tying in legends? I think every culture has a different mythical explanation for where thunder comes from, and no few work that explanation into either the primary term for thunder, or the idiomatic terms. Why not do that with other, particularly the bizarre, weather patterns?

It doesn’t necessarily even only affect the words for weather, but often the words for other things as well. There are very few celestial bodies with names indigenous to England. Most of our star names, in fact, originated in Arabic, and the word for planet is originally Greek. And yes, there’s the fact that the latter two cultures got their scholastic traditions a lot earlier—but you can’t discount the fact that it’s a lot easier to both have opportunities to look at the sky and uses for naming all those stars when you live in a place that tends towards clear nights. Or there’s comparison: think about all the phrases we have that boil down to [fill-in-the-blank]-storm.

Variations in climate and corresponding weather can do a lot to people’s vocabularies, both in discussing the weather itself and in the things that the weather allows them, or doesn’t allow them, to see and understand. And yes, this is small detail, but it’s the kind of small detail that can provide an extra sparkle to a story; it may not be worth spending hours on, but it’s worth looking into.

Leave a Reply