Meteorology – The Language of Weather

February 15, 2017 5:30 pm


The Brits – and also the Danes – love to talk about the weather, probably because it tends to change a lot in these parts of the world, not only in spring. Thus, there is reason to believe that weather must also be the talk of the town here in Luxembourg!


The famous Danish cartoonist Robert Storm Petersen once said: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it!” Well, instead of intending to achieve the impossible, there are other reasons as to why people communicate about the weather. It is a way of breaking the ice when wanting to start a conversation. People talk about the weather on the phone and in person. Friends and family talk about the weather before they discuss what’s new. Co-workers talk about the weather before starting a hard day of work. Even strangers discuss the weather.

By learning the proper weather vocabulary and expressions in different languages, you will easily be able to start a conversation anytime and anywhere with anyone you meet!

The history of meteorology

The art of weather forecasting ­– or meteorology – began with early civilizations using reoccurring astronomical and meteorological events to help them monitor seasonal changes in the weather. Around 650 B.C., the Babylonians tried to predict short-term weather changes based on the appearance of clouds and optical phenomena such as haloes. By 300 B.C., Chinese astronomers had developed a calendar that divided the year into 24 festivals, each festival associated with a different type of weather.

weather quote

Around 340 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote Meteorologica, a philosophical treatise that included theories about the formation of rain, clouds, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, and hurricanes. In addition, topics such as astronomy, geography, and chemistry were also addressed. Aristotle made some remarkably acute observations concerning the weather, along with some significant errors, and his four-volume text was considered by many to be the authority on weather theory for almost 2000 years. Although many of Aristotle’s claims were erroneous, it was not until about the 17th century that many of his ideas were overthrown.

Weatherese – communicationg weather forecasts

Throughout the centuries, attempts have been made to produce forecasts based on weather lore and personal observations. However, a lot of the resources used to forecast weather is wasted because the public can’t understand what is written or said. From a linguistic point of view, the accuracy of a weather-forecast is of course less interesting than the clarity of the language in the forecast itself, the so-called forecast

Forecasters may not like being criticised, and/or they may not think that the quality of the verbal aspect of their work can be improved. As blogger Paul Danon points out, forecasters often tend to speak in terms of what the weather is doing rather than what the weather might do to us, i.e. communication doesn’t actually take place from the recipients’ point of view. National weather-forecasts are admittedly at millions of people, but weather can often be described in terms of parts of the country. Therefore it is not enough just to talk about the weather in one region if the forecast is supposed to be able to help listeners to know how the weather will affect them.

Meteorologists versus sports-reporters

Moreover, linguists rightly observe that professions use specialised language, in part, to save time. For example, it is quicker for a linguist to say “phoneme” than “the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes meaning“. Similarly, a meteorologist will talk about an “anticyclone” rather than “a weather phenomenon in which there is a descending movement of the air and a high pressure area over the part of the planet’s surface affected by it“. So why should a forecaster not be able to deviate from standard English, when it is accepted, say, for a sports-reporter to use specialised language in his or her texts, without always having to stop to explain the offside rule in soccer or what “out” means in cricket?

The difference is that forecasters presenting information for a general (rather than specialised such as maritime or agricultural) audience need to use ordinary people’s way of talking about the weather. This doesn’t just mean avoiding words such as “anticyclone”, but also using ordinary words in an abnormal way. Thus, the rather weird uses of “ease” and “clear” and “strengthen” which Paul Danon has observed in his studies of ‘the language of weather forecasts‘ may not count as jargon, but they could serve to puzzle if not actually misinform listeners.

No matter how precise the weather forecasts and/or the weatherese are going to be be in the future, there will always be much talking going on about the weather – whether(!) one prefers rain, wind or sunshine. Robert Storm Petersen, however, chose to consider things slightly different: “I am just saying that you should appreciate the weather, as long as you can breathe it!”

Collection of weather terminology links:

Article written by Claus Skovbjerg, MA, stagiaire communicateur at TermCoord

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