December 08, 2003

Let It Snow Words

Besides those 88 English snow words, there's another interesting thing about English words for precipitation and its aftermath -- something that occurred to me a while back in the middle of a lecture on different ways in which languages carve up lexical space. Having a revelation in mid-class isn't always a terrific pedagogical move, but it's fun.

I was explaining words for "snow" in Montana Salish (a Salishan language spoken in the name suggests). The language has different roots for snow depending on whether it's in the air (as in "it's snowing") or on the ground; that is, once it hits the ground, it's a different thing altogether. Weird, right? I mean, snow is snow, regardless of whether it's more or less vertical and moving or just lying there. So it seems exotic for a language to make a distinction like the Montana Salish snow distinction.

And then it struck me that English does in fact distinguish precipitation from the stuff after it hits the ground. But only unfrozen precipitation: rain is rain only when it's coming down. Once it's stopped falling, and is on the ground or your roof or your hat, it's no longer rain, even if it's splashing around: it's water, puddles, part of a lake -- but it's not rain. And this certainly isn't exotic; it's just normal (to English speakers). Conclusion: English is just like Montana Salish, only less consistent. Well, just like Montana Salish except for those four pharyngeal consonant phonemes and the glottalized resonants and the 8-consonant syllable onsets and the special terms for in-laws after the death of the connecting relative and...

Posted by Sally Thomason at December 8, 2003 03:00 PM