Rainbow-sparkling air sequins

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As I got out of my taxi at the Helsinki Vantaa airport on my way home, in bright sunshine, I noticed something strange. There were sparkles in the air. Tiny flickering rainbow-sparkling air sequins were all around my head. At first I blinked, thinking my eyes were playing tricks. But it was real. Every cubic inch of the cold air around me had tiny floating ice crystals in it. Gently drifting almost-invisible nano-snowflakes, falling from a clear blue sky, sparkling like tiny prisms — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet — in the bright winter sun. Finland didn't want me to leave, and was showing off new forms of beauty. I had never seen precipitation of this kind before. I hate to admit it, since it can only encourage the millions of people who will insist this is connected to some sort of profound insight about language and thought, but… it was a kind of snow I didn't have a word for.

I suppose that the comments box below will now start filling up with awed comments about the wonders of lexical variety and the opening of our mind to new snow concepts through new snow words and the usual yadda yadda blah blah — the stuff that I and others have tried to warn people against in so many previous Language Log posts. As I said recently in The lexical measure of your life, you just can't stop people thinking that the words you possess determine the concepts you can access. Even though the counterevidence is right up there in the opening paragraph of this post: I had no word for the phenomenon, yet I could describe it to you perfectly well without resorting to Finnish or an Eskimoan language. So why do people continue to treat no-word-for-it prattle (and the many-words-for-it blather) as fascinating and deep? I have no idea. It is a strange form of linguistic dopiness that I have no word for in my language.


  1. jfruh said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    But the question is, do the Finns have a word for this stuff? Only if we learn that our Finnish friends call it "Laapinlaapitä" (direct translation: "Rainbow-sparkling air sequins") would Sapir-Worf's thesis finally be confirmed.

  2. Tadeusz said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    I do not think this attitude is natural, but it is a result of literacy and schooling. Words in writing look so much like objects, so they surely are in one-to-one relation with the objects out there. They are no longer results of physiological processes, they are firmly outside the speaker, and then you have the mental lexicon in mental linguistics, etc., where this association is strengthened. At school they teach you to be precise, don't they? Which means you are supposed to have a "precise" (one word) label for anything.
    A logical conclusion is: the more educated and literate you are the more linguistically dopey you are. And that, judging by the discussion at the Sibelius post, seems to be the correct conclusion.

  3. Eleanor said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    Meteorologists call it "diamond dust".

  4. Mark F. said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Ah, but the fact that you had no word for it was evidence that it wasn't common in your prior experience. Usually, when I hear a no-word-for-X assertion, that's the claim I take them to be making.

    But then I forget how tempting the Sapir-Whorf siren song can be. I remember hearing a talk about the Aboriginal language Warlpiri when I was in college. If I recall correctly, it has a one-two-many number system, and I forget how I phrased the question, but I asked something about how speakers of the language were able to get their minds around names for larger numbers. The guy giving the talk said that it was no different from how easy it is for us to get our minds around the idea of "cousin on the mother's side" (or some such example). That very simple answer really made an impression on me.

  5. Sky Onosson said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    In fact, you already noted the correct term for this in your first paragraph: ice crystals (at least, that's the term Canadian meteorologists use).

    I remember experiencing something very similar, if not the same phenomenon, here in Winnipeg, Canada around 10-12 years ago. That year, we had a particularly bad cold spell, and the temperature had remained below -30 C, even during the day, for about three weeks straight. At those temperatures, we almost never get actual snowfall, or even much cloud cover. So at least we get lots of sunshine to enjoy in the winter!

  6. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    It's a well-known fact that meteorologists have a hundred words for precipitation.

  7. Eyebrows McGee said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    We jokingly call it "too cold to snow snow." But our meteorologists call it "ice crystals," like Sky's. Boring!

  8. Sim Aberson said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Actually, diamond dust is the name for ice crystals that form spontaneously at very cold temperatures in a cloudless sky. More is needed to produce the rainbow-sparkling air sequins. I would say that I am jealous that I wasn't there to see this spectacular and quite rare show.

    At very cold temperatures, even a small amount of water vapor in the air can cause the air parcel to become saturated. Different types of ice or snow form at different temperatures (yes, we have already discussed that meteorologists really do have at least 40 different classifications for frozen precipitation http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/2007_09.html). At very cold temperatures, we get hexagonal plates or ice needles, perfect prisms to separate out the colors. The other ingredient needed for the display is a low sun, likely in Helsinki this time of year. I would guess that the colors were visible toward and away from the sun, but looking perpendicular produced just white.

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Does this sounds like a fair generalization to people? The presence or absence of certain vocabulary items can indeed tell you something. But it's often a something that lies at the purely factual, almost mundane level.

    I know the single word "camel" but no words for different types of camel. This suggests that right now, I don't have much camel experience in my life. But this only tells you how things are right now. If I moved somewhere with lots of camels, things would change. And it certainly doesn't tell you anything deep about my "nature", or about the nature of English. There isn't some mysterious ineffable magic ability, inherent in some people and cultures but not in others, allowing them to "get" camels but forever inaccessible to anyone else.

  10. Mary Kuhner said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Apropos of the camels, in one of Borges' essays he puts forward the argument that the absence of the word "camel" in the Koran is evidence that it was genuinely written by an Arab; a faker, he says, would of course have put in camels, as they are iconic of the region, but someone who lived there wouldn't find them particularly remarkable and thus would only put them in if they happened to be germane.

    The ice crystals are lovely. We had a lot of snow in Seattle this year and late one evening my son and I went sledding in a very heavy ice-crystal fall. There was no sun, but the streetlights made them sparkle both in the air and on the ground, and it was gorgeous. I hadn't seen this since childhood in Alaska, where it was fairly common but my community didn't seem to have a word for it. (We did have a lot of cold-weather vocabulary, like sundogs and hoarfrost and black ice, but not that one.)

  11. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    @ Mary Kuhner – perhaps Borges was subtly insinuating the Koran was written by a faker – according to an epsiode of QI I saw recently, the "camel and eye of the needle" parable appears in the Koran as well as the Bible.

    So I googled it up and according to this site it is 7:38 – "In the Koran, this expression is identical to that used in Matthew, and has a very similar context. '…the gates of heaven shall not be opened to them (those who reject the message), nor shall they enter Paradise until the camel passes through the eye of the needle.' (Koran 7:38)" – it's on p.249 of my Penguin Classics edition (4th revised ed 1974, printed 1977, trans N.J.Dawood).

  12. Olga said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Also known as "when the air crystalizes". I especially like the feeling of trying to breathe that stuff. But there is unfortunately no word, to my knowledge, for "the feeling when you arrive at Fairbanks international airport when you draw your first breath outside and get this sparkly incredibly cold air into your lungs". There should be. English is such a poor language.

  13. hjælmer said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    May I add a non-linguistic point? We had freezing rain last week in southern Ohio, and the temperatures remained so cold that tree limbs remained encased in ice. Sunday morning the temperature rose suddenly and the ice shattered, but the ground was still cold enough to prevent the shattered ice from melting immediately. The ground was covered with what looked like little diamonds. I had never seen such a phenomenon, and had no word, only a slightly shopworn simile.

  14. Rick Robinson said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

    What other commenters have said: 'How many words a language has for X' is a fairly good metric of how often that language's speakers need to talk or think about X.

    The hardline Whorfians always left one big question hanging – if you can't think of something till you have a word for it, how did anyone ever first think of anything?

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    Olga: The word is, conventionally, "impoverished". (For the language, not for the air.) All languages are necessarily impoverished, because mundus magnus, vita brevis. The feeling of breathing air in which the oxygen is condensing out (at 90 K) has no word in any present language, unless you would credit "ow".

    Rick Robinson: Are there really any "hardline Whorfians"? Were Sapir or Whorf hardline?

  16. Sili said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    How long before LL turns into MeteorologyLog? (Assuming there isn't one already. I only read RealClimate.)

  17. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    Skullturf Q. Beavispants said, "I know the single word 'camel' but no words for different types of camel."


  18. Christy Mason said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    My own experience as a child has always made me a disbeliever in the Sapir-Whorf premise. I remember quite clearly how I felt when I was a Brownie (about 5 years old, the youngest of the Girl Scouts, for the international readers) and we had a fundraiser where we had to provide things to auction off. It was five years later before I learned the word that described how I felt by the entire experience, and I will never forget how glad I was to discover that, not only was I not the only person to have felt that feeling, but there was even a word to describe it. The word: demeaned.

  19. Stuart said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    "the fact that you had no word for it was evidence that it wasn't common in your prior experience. Usually, when I hear a no-word-for-X assertion, that's the claim I take them to be making."

    That is how I read such statements, too. Especially in situations like the UAE snow comment referred to in the earlier post. "No word for X in language Y" can be just a speaker's way of emphasising how uncommon "X" is in the experience of those speaking language Y. It's the presumption that it MUST be the recitation of Whorfian dogma is puzzling.

  20. Mark P said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    There may or may not be a word for what you saw, but beware of authoritative claims by meteorologists. Meteorologists (that is to say, weather forecasters) are notorious for knowing things that aren't true. Atmospheric scientists might or might not have a word for that specific phenomenon (I don't) but it seems to me that "ice crystals" works pretty well. It's not specific enough, but least it's descriptive, unlike "gravity waves."

  21. Blake Stacey said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

    Borges actually attributes the observation that the Koran lacks camels to Edward Gibbon; the deduction from this (incorrect) premise appears to be his own.

  22. Prof. Bleen said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    Was I the only one who reflexively sang,

    Finland, Finland, Finland,
    The country where I want to be,
    Boating, trekking, or camping,
    Or just watching TV.
    Finland, Finland, Finland,
    It's the country for me.

    You're so near to Russia,
    So far from Japan—
    Quite a long way from Cairo,
    Lots of miles from Vietnam.
    (etc., from Monty Python's Contractual Obligations Album)

  23. Prof. Bleen said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

    You said it, Mark P. Paradoxically, meteorologists are, as a whole, near the forefront of climate change denialism. If you don't believe it, just peruse the global warming forum at Accuweather.com.

  24. The other Mark P said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    Paradoxically, meteorologists are, as a whole, near the forefront of climate change denialism.

    I confess I see no paradox here.

    Perhaps their job gives them daily evidence of the difficulty of predicting and explaining long term weather trends.

  25. Kari said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 12:03 am

    Well here we have it. It seems as if all kinds of people have all kinds of words for this snow. So it is not a matter of not having the word. That is not what is important. When you described the snow, I was able to understand what you meant perfectly. Perhaps people put to much emphasis on words and not enough on meaning? Why does there need to be one word to describe this snow when a few work just as well? So long as you are able to make others understand you. I kind of like not remembering the name of something I observe, it leaves so much more room for creativity.

  26. Nathan Myers said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 12:56 am

    It's paradoxical because they are supposed to have studied, you know, science, and understand about, you know, evidence and stuff. Most likely it's because they have internalized their own profound inability to affect the weather, and the projected it on the species as a whole. After years of insisting the weather is not their fault, they have come to believe it.

  27. tablogloid said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    Just last week there was a news report of snow falling in the United Arab Emirates. Of course, the reporter mentioned that several inhabitiants did not have a word for the white stuff.

  28. TootsNYC said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    I actually think that having a word for something can shut off your observations of it and interactions with it.

    If you can label it, you don't have to ponder it anymore.

    We invent short-hand ways of referring to things (in other words, words) for things we encounter often and need to talk about a lot. That we are familiar with. And as we know, familiarity breeds contempt (contempt meaning "not held to be of much value").

    As Kari said before me: "I kind of like not remembering the name of something I observe, it leaves so much more room for creativity."

  29. Rick Robinson said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Nathan Myers asks, Are there really any "hardline Whorfians"? Were Sapir or Whorf hardline?

    Probably Sapir and Whorf themselves weren't 'hardline,' but how about George Orwell? The whole logic behind Newspeak is that if you have no words for freedom or rebellion you can't have any subversive thoughts. Pondering and rejecting that made me a non-Whorfian years before I ever heard of Sapir or Whorf.

  30. Simon Spero said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    If you didn't have specific word for it, then it is categorized as "the wrong kind".

    Simon // I was a Whorfian before I even knew the term existed

  31. marie-lucie said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    In the modern world it is possible to "know" all kinds of words for things or creatures we have no personal experience of. Some years ago I worked in a public school in Canada: at that time it was possible to obtain any number of pictures of wild animals such as lions, giraffes, penguins and kangaroos, not to mention several types of dinosaurs, but pictures of moose, bears, cougars or porcupines were unknown among school suppliers. Canadian children could grow up never knowing that there were living wild animals in Canada! and just knowing the names and recognizing the pictures of lions and giraffes did not mean the children (and the teachers) actually "knew" anything about them any more than they might have "known" about dinosaurs or unicorns.

    I knew a Cuban refugee family who had first settled in Minnesota: of course they knew the word nieve, but had no personal experience of snow, so the first time snow fell they all rushed out of their house and practically danced on the lawn with the snow falling on their faces. Similarly, a student from the Bahamas, a native English speaker, knew the word "snow" but was surprised at how light snow was when he was asked to help with shovelling fresh snow.

  32. Forrest said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    It sounds like a gorgeous sight – I wish I could have enjoyed this myself. Fortunately, we get a bit of snow in Seattle and the surrounding mountains … I'll have to make a point to look out for this.

    @hjælmer – It sounds like you're describing an ice storm. These are common in Connecticut, where I grew up. They cause a lot of damage, killing plants, and downing power lines. But it's beautiful to see the glistening ice coating almost everything in sight…

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    marie-lucie: I grew up in Hawaii, and distinctly remember the feeling, on arriving in Oregon, at recognizing by name trees and birds I had never seen before: birches, robins. It was very much akin to Déjà vu.

  34. Elinore said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    On the very same day that this was posted, and unaware of this article, I baked Rainbow-sparkling star cupcakes.

  35. GAC said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Of course, the perfect proof would be for you to spontaneously coin your own term. The patent stupidity of a serious "no word for X" claim is that words are cheap — they are created and borrowed all the time with little or no effort at all.

    However, sometimes I do fall into linking some cultural perspective to words. I've always had an unhealthy interest in Chinese kinship terms, to the point that I bring up family members to Chinese friends just so I can trace through the relationship and ask what the proper term is. Of course these terms show a little bit about historical Chinese family structure (for instance, people related to you through a female often have the character "outside" in their title), but I doubt it has much of a lasting effect on individual Chinese as they relate to their families. After all, formal English doesn't distinguish maternal and paternal grandparents, but most families find some strategy to change their names.

    …. For some reason I'm on a tangentially-related-reply-mentioning-Chinese kick today. Meh.

  36. Aaron Davies said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    the whole thing seems reminiscent of the magical quality that words (are claimed to?) hold in "primitive" societies, where naming a thing or person is supposed to grant some amount of control over it. (my knowledge of this is mostly from fantasy novels, thus the disclaimer, but otoh i think a it of that comes from le guin, who got it from her father's research.)

  37. peter panucci said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    Was I the only one who reflexively sang,

    Finland, Finland, Finland,
    The country where I do not want to be,
    quiet as grave stones
    Boring, fatiguing, or forgotten in the corner,
    they are all just watching TV.
    Finland, Finland, Finland,
    they are not scandinavians
    just global wannabes
    It's not the country for me.

    You're so near to Russia,
    So far from Japan—
    Quite a long way from Cairo,
    Not close to London
    Lots of miles from Vietnam.
    (etc., from Monty Python's Contractual Obligations Album)

  38. Rosefiend said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

    Somebody broke in with all his matter-of-fact about the ice storm, which leads me to quote Robert Frost:

    But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
    As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
    Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
    After a rain. They click upon themselves
    As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
    As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
    Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
    Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
    Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
    You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

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