Feefle, flindrikin and unbrak; cultural vocabularies to help you write

What do feefle, flindrikin and unbrak have in common? Well, they’re part of a group of over 400 different Scottish words to describe snow and it was reported recently that they’re all being compiled into a new online Scottish Thesaurus (future topics include food, drink and rain). As The Guardian reminds us, the Scots are not alone; Hawaiians have 47 different words for describing bananas, the Inuits have possibly hundreds to describe snow, and the Baniwa tribe in Brazil have 29 ways to describe edible ants.

It seems that it’s very common for cultures to assign a number of different words to describe things that are important to them and is a key indicator of cultural preferences and importance (see Adam Jacot de Boinod’s wonderful article on what vocabularies tell us about culture here). I love how the idea of language defines peoples’ characters and personalities (or is it the other way around?). If you want to blow your mind, watch Tom Scott’s amazing youtube snippet on “Fantastic Features We Don’t Have in the English Language” here. I had never thought about how when we use our verbs, we have to give a time period. The Chinese don’t apparently. Who knew?

This is all really interesting stuff and it has an obvious relation to us as writers. The idea that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow is now an obvious cliché (it’s even listed on wikipedia as fact) but it’s worth thinking about in terms of dialect and speech. If you are writing about specific cultures, make sure you’re aware of the differences in language between them. If I was writing about the English for instance, I’d probably mention the rain…

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