Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wintery language thoughts

As I sit writing in my home of Karmiel in the Galilee with the unfamiliar sight of snow covered the hills around me and a crispy temperature of 2 degrees centigrade, just slightly above freezing for those living in Fahrenheit countries, my thoughts wander off to weather terms.  Specifically, I consider how each language expresses those common or not-so-common winter phenomena that have to be expressed in words, especially by the news media.

English, being a root-rich language, prefers the precise single word.  It is cold, note the verb to be, but most other terms have their own specific verb form: it snows; it rains; it hails. English weather needs no help.

Nor does French. “Il fait froid”, this time using the verb faire, to have, but il neige; il pleut; il grēle.  This one-verb form makes leaning the terms much easier, eliminating the mistaken helping verb.  Of course, Americans will often say “Il est froid”, the literal translation of the English construction, but the French will understand that if they so chose.

Aside from the cold term, the Russian language goes places. The single term  [holodno] expresses the three word English phrase.  By contrast, in the Russian winter, идет снег [idyot sneg]; идет джодь [idyot djod]; идет град [idyot grad].   In all the cases, the weather, whether it is snow, rain, or hail, goes, presumably downwards.

In Israel, these phenomena clearly travel towards the ground.  When זה קר [ze kar], meaning it is cold, and ורד שלג  [yored sheleg],  יורד גשם][yored geshem], or  יורד ברד [yored barad], the snow, rain and hail literally drop.  Since we don’t know get enough of the first two, it makes sense they can be called “drop in the bucket”. 

So, if you are lucky enough to be watching the weather from the warmth of your home (with the electricity working), think about how your language expresses the complex act of precipitation.

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