“50 Words for Snow” – Language is Shaped by Local Communicative Needs


In this study by Regier and colleagues, they found that variation in related words across languages may be due to local communicative needs.

They found that speakers of languages associated with warm climates do tend to mention ice and/or snow proportionally less than speakers of languages associated with cold climates. The researchers’ results support the claim that local communicative needs can leave their imprint on category systems across languages, a point that may generalize across semantic domains, or how meaning is assigned in language. Their results also suggest that this claim can be viewed as an instance of the more general theoretical stance that language reflects the need for efficient communication.


Article Title: 

Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited (Open Access)




Terry Regier, Alexandra Carstensen, and Charles Kemp




University of California, Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University, United States




The researchers noted that theory (based on the observation that certain Eskimo languages have numerous words for snow) suggests that local physical environment (abundant snow in various forms) shapes local cultural communicative needs (“the chief interests of a people”, including the need to communicate precisely and informatively about snow), which in turn shape the category system of a language (narrow and precise semantic categories for subtypes of snow). This reasoning was based on the more general hypothesis that language is shaped by the functional need for efficient communication—that is, communication that is informative and precise, yet requires minimal effort. They investigated the idea that local environment may shape frequency of reference to particular items (such as snow), and that semantic category systems may vary accordingly, as predicted by the hypothesis of efficient communication.





The researchers remarked that to their knowledge, the line of causal reasoning that environment shapes local communicative needs that, in turn, shape the category system of a language had not been investigated across languages.




The researchers analysed data from many languages (total number varied by analysis, up to 240) and multiple sources, including library reference works, Twitter, and large digital collections of linguistic and meteorological data.


ScientiFix tip: Using words about the environment allow for a nice way to link language, location, and weather data to determine how local language needs shape local language variation and use. However, future research should attempt to use other words that may be sensitive to location, but not related to snow, temperature, or the natural environment, to see if they find similar effects. An example of this may be words related to the most popular sport, most consumed food type, or even possibly most popular music genre in that area. Finding similar effects for these semantic categories would offer further support for their proposed causal relationship.


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