'No word for X' archive

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Responding to the popularity of this morning's post on the politico-lexical economy of fair, here's a list of some earlier LL posts on aspects of the No Word for X meme and its rhetorical deployment [updated for some later ones as well…]:

"No word for 'fetch'", 11/25/2014
"No word for 'father'", 10/22/2014
"When there's no Hebrew word for something, it's a bad idea", 4/4/2014
"No word for rape" (11/20/2013)
"No word for normal parts of early childhood?" (7/23/2013)
"Wade Davis has no word for 'dubious linguistic claim'" (1/14/2013)
"No word for 'privacy' in Russian?" (1/15/2012)
"It's baaack . . . and upside-down!" (1/2/2012)
"No word for Rapture" (5/20/2011)
"No word for 'mess'" (4/21/2011)
"We have not the word because we have so much of the thing" (4/19/2011)
"No word for dyslexia in languages with good spelling systems" (2/28/2011)
"Annals of 'No Word for X'" (1/23/2011)
"No word for 'retroactive loss of modifier redundancy'?" (10/9/2010
"No word for journalistic indolence" (10/6/2010)
"No virgins on Danger Island" (10/6/2010)
"Whorfian tourism" (9/23/2010)
"There is No Word in Japanese for 'Compliance'" (7/15/2010)
"Icelandic: no word for 'please', 45 words for 'green'?" (4/18/2010)
"40 words for 'next'" (4/2/2010)
"Pop-Whorfianism in the comics again" (7/29/2009)
"Hay foot straw foot" (7/29/2009)
"No word for bribery" (7/3/2009)
"From the 'words for X' annals" (5/31/2009)
"No concept of X in Y" (3/29/2009)
"Rainbow sparkling air sequins" (2/2/2009)
"No word for lying?" (1/31/2009)
"No words, or too many" (1/30/2009)
"No word for fair?" (1/28/2009)
"Another 'words for X' competition" (1/1/2009)
"No word for integrity?" (12/31/2008)
"Reverse Whorfianism and the value of SHAs" (12/23/2008)
"Burger King Whopper Virgins" (12/4/2008)
"Journalistic dreamtime" (3/8/2007)
"Solving the world's problems with linguistics" (12/17/2006)
"Does anybody have a word for this? Probably not." (11/2/2006)
"Parts of a fish head: Let me count the ways" (10/4/2006)
"Ineffability" (9/21/2006)
"No concept of the future, no yuccas either" (5/11/2006)
"No Word for Thank You" (5/6/2006)
"New ideas and new words" (4/23/2006)
"Whorf in a bottle" (5/5/2006)
"Ayn Rand psychologizes a trope" (3/19/2006)
"Ayn Rand, linguist?" (3/15/2006)
"'60 Minutes' doomed to repeat itself" (12/24/2005)
"Snowclone blindness" (11/19/2005)
"The miserable French language and its inadequacies" (9/30/2005)
"Football in Navajo, anyone?" (9/23/2005)
"Crisis ≠ Danger + Opportunity" (4/29/2005)
"No word for 'lazy hack parroting drivel'" (4/1/2005)
"No word for sex" (3/12/2005)
"It's like a glimmer on the horizon" (12/3/2004)
"Arctic folk at loss for words again" (11/23/2004)
"No word for robins" (11/16/2004)



35 Comments

  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

    I just spent some time re-reading these posts. The comments on the "robin" issue ('robins are known just as the "bird with the red breast," she said.') looks all the more preposterous when one remembers that the bird is known as rouge-gorge (I.e. "redthroat") in French whereas English has such bird names as "honeyeater", "yellowlegs" and "tropicbird"!

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    I spent some time re-reading too, and now I will always think of that famous Puccini opera as "Missis Flying Grease-Ball." Thanks.

  3. Karen said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 5:48 am

    WIth the robin thing, isn't it possible that they were just looking for a simple, yet dramatic way to say "Robins never got that far north before", rather than implying that the Inuit wouldn't be able to come up with a name now that one was needed?

    [(myl) Yes, exactly. Emphasizing that "X is a new feature of the environment" is one of the standard reasons for using the "No word for X" rhetorical gesture. What's odd about its use (aside from the fact that both propositions are sometimes false) is the implication that not having a single word for something is a telling indication of unfamiliarity with the concept, and creates a sort of ontological crisis, or at least a serious sociolinguistic dilemma. ]

  4. Think said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    It occurs to me that English has no word to cover the concept "no word for X". Thus, some people would suggest that we Anglophones can't have that concept. But since we DO have the concept of "no word for X", why can't these people accept that other people can entertain a concept even if their language doesn't have a word for it?

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    Another recent use of "no word for X" to emphasize "X is a new feature of the environment," sent in by reader Laura Kalin…

    For the first time in the desert country's history, snow blanketed the peak of Jais Mountain in the northern United Arab Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah Sunday.
    So rare was the snowfall that a lifelong resident of the area said the local dialect does not even have a word for 'snow,' the UAE daily The National reported.
    Al-Arabiya, 25 January 2009

    (The word for snow in standard Arabic, by the way, is ثلج, pronounced "thalj" /θaldʒ/. And it's been borrowed into other languages in non-snowy climes, such as Indonesian salju and Malaysian salji.)

  6. MattF said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    I suggest 'Dislexia.'

  7. Mossy said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    You're swinging the pendulum too far the other way. We are all not sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya.

    I'm sorry to cross post.

    Russians don't have the concept of the whistleblower. In Russian society, where there isn't an impartial judiciary, "clans" and clan loyalties have replaced it. Snitching on your boss for the greater good is impossible to do, because you have no place to complain to — the police and DA are as corrupt as your bosses. That doesn't mean that Russians can't understand it, or can't admire it, or wouldn't do it if they could. But it means that "whistleblowing" in Russia/Russian doesn't exist as a possible way to improve anyone's life or as a positive human activity.

    On the other hand, Russians have a wonderful concept — avos'. Avos' is the hand of God or fate or chance that intervenes to save you from impending disaster caused by your folly. You're sleeping with your girlfriend without contraception? You're counting on "Russian — as they call it — avos'." You're taking out credit with no income? You're counting on Russian avos'n to provide you with a job when you need it. You're zipping into the oncoming traffic lane to pass on a blind curve? You're counting on avos' to prevent an 18-wheeler for appearing. English doesn't have this word, but when we hear it, we think: Yes! That's exactly what I was doing.

    There is a difference between being able to experience something and a culture/language/person coming up with a word to describe something. Please don't take away our differences.

    There is also a difference between some jerk politician or journalist stating that "there's no word for X" in a language, when there is, and genuine differences.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    Mossy: Please don't take away our differences.

    Heaven forfend. We're all about differences — see e.g. "46 Somali words for camel", 2/15/2004.

    We just want to take away your idiocies. Well, not *yours*, of course, just those of the kind of people who write things like "Life was lived in the mythic moment; aboriginal languages had no words for 'yesterday' or 'tomorrow'".

    We aren't out to prove that all cultures are the same, or that all cultures are incommensurable either. We're just trying to keep straight what's true and what's false, more or less.

  9. arthur said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    There isn't any word in English equivalent to the Hebrew "mitzvah," "Mitzvah" is sometimes translated as "good deed," or "righteous action," and sometimes as "commandment." In American Jewish circles, it is used to mean "action that conforms to God's commandment that we do good deeds for others." This is one of the very few Hebrew words that American Jews who don't speak Hebrew use regularly, bvecause there is no equivalent. The absence of such a word in English demonstrates that acts of kindness are alien to the cultures of the English speaking peoples.

  10. Pandammonium: blogs [pandammonia] said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    […] reading this comment on a blog post on Language Log about languages not having words for this that and the other, I […]

  11. Mossy said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Sorry. I do see, of course, that "the X people have no word for Y" is usually 1) wrong and 2) used to dehumanize them in some way.

  12. David Waugh said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    What about the stories you often here about people who lack words for numbers? An example in the news recently was the Yanomamo who are said to almost totally lack words for numbers or quantities and even find the concepts baffling.

  13. S Hawkins said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    Not to nitpick on Ben's comment, but "thalj" in Arabic refers to both snow and ice. Which, of course, does not mean that in the Arabic speaking world snow and ice are presumed to be the same. As in so many situations, context determines meaning.

    Part of the problem in the "no word for X" phenomenon is the reduction of language to a collection of words (as has been frequently mentioned here in the past). Taking words in isolation tells us relatively little. Looking at larger classificatory systems is more illuminating. A classic example is the system of kinship terms, which help define meaningful social relationships.

  14. Yoram said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Another nugget I read once is that Yiddish only has a general word for 'bird', and has no specific words for, say, sparrows and pigeons. This presumably refers to wild birds which are not expected to be eaten (since Jewish law frowns on eating vultures and such). I guess this is supposed to reflect a Jewish disinterest in the natural world.

  15. Jangari said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    What about the stories you often here about people who lack words for numbers? An example in the news recently was the Yanomamo who are said to almost totally lack words for numbers or quantities and even find the concepts baffling.

    Let's distill from this the two main points:
    A) Language X lacks numbers (probably beyond about 3)
    B) The speakers of this language find the concept (of numbers and quantities beyond about 3) baffling
    The former has been shows to be the case in many indigenous languages. The langauge I'm researching, for instance, Wagiman, has nungarin 'one', larrima 'two', murrkgun 'three' and then nu-nawu-ma 'a bunch, lots'. Does this mean that the Wagiman people had no concepts of larger numbers? I think this questions is rather moot. Traditionally, there never arised a situation that required, for example, the number '34' for which the cover term 'lots' did not suffice. More recently, when such situations did arise, there were perfectly good numbers there for them to use.

    Conversely, take all those theoretical numbers, like aleph-null (א‎‭ₒ), which is something like the smallest of all infinite cardinalities. Or take i, the square-root of -1, a mathematically impossible number. I bet most people don't have the conceptual ability to understand these numbers, yet they have names.

  16. Chris Schoen said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    We aren't out to prove that all cultures are the same, or that all cultures are incommensurable either. We're just trying to keep straight what's true and what's false, more or less.

    But a science of language would want to account for these differences somehow, wouldn't it?

    It certainly appears, even on close scrutiny, that many pre-scientific cultures did not have words for classes and categories that we take for granted. I don't offer this as evidence for the fallacy that these cultures were cruder or less human than ours, but it calls out for some kind of hypothesis. One, going back to Humboldt, is that language and culture tend to evolve greater abstraction over time.

    Whether or not linguistic mutation is the cause of this evolution, we can trace with some precison a development in human history from mythical thinking to logical thinking, and our languages have changed in correlation to that development. This does suggest that there is a link between the way a culture speaks and the way a culture thinks, even if the former is not determinant of the latter.

    [(myl) What I said about this in another thread:

    [I]t's hard to do good research on this problem — in part because of the density and strength of misconceptions that surround it. And so there's not much good research (or even clear thinking in a non-scientific mode), and an enormous amount of woo.

    In these respects, it's rather like the question of cognitive differences between the sexes, or among ethnic groups.

    A closely related issue — whether changes in intelligence or in modernity or in individuality can or should be measured by looking at how people answer questions about grouping things — was discussed in an earlier post, "One questions, two answers, three interpretations", 8/13/2008. ]

  17. Chris Schoen said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    Thanks for the link, Mark.

    I think this is a case where textual analysis comes in handy. The example that comes to mind is from Bruce Lincoln's "Theorizing Myth," where he very methodically makes the case that in pre-5th century BCE Greece, the connotations of mythos and logos were essentially the opposite of what they are today; that is, where we consider logic a vehicle of truth-finding, and myth a vehicle of delusion, most Greeks of Homer and Hesiod's time considered "mythic" speech–that is speech that was from the heart, based on personal experience, or based on a sacred source of information–an expression of truth, whereas "logos" indicated word-play and trickery. (He also contrasts the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey as marking the shift between the valorizing of mythos and logos).

    The Russian peasants of Luria's interviews seem to me to harken back to this pre-logical, pre-abstract apprehension of truth.

  18. No Word for . . . « eXchanges blog said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 2:50 am

    […] 7, 2009 The Language Log has put up a post compiling links to all its past discussions of the "No Word for X" phenomenon, in which […]

  19. Greek Language Destines Nation for Financial Ruin « eXchanges blog said,

    April 8, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    […] 8, 2009 The "No Word for X" claim that I mentioned in my last post (and so thoroughly explored by Language Log) showed up less than 24 hours later in an article by Manfred Ertel in Business […]

  20. Alex said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    All languages lack words, which is why we have the concept of foreign loanwords (外来語). You can explain a term in any language, but that doesn't mean we have an expression in "live-language" that conveys the same meaning.

    Déjà vu, karaoke, sabbatical – These are a few examples of words we had to import into English because we didn't have our own equivalents. And to say that "No word for X in Y language" is an invalid statement is to say that we've reached the pinnacle in language evolution and we will no longer have the need to create new vocabulary (because we can already express anything, right?).

  21. George Will is not a linguist. « Benton Powers said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    […] assume a feature of language use provides a clue to the speaker’s underlying psychological state. Language Log has an ongoing debunking of the argument involving: “Language X has no/few/many word(s) for […]

  22. Ikke noe ord for meg « Lingvisme said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    […] med en slik dum påstand. Trøsten får vel være at han ikke er den første. Language Log har et arkiv over poster om "No word for X"-memen. Det å hevde at språk Y ikke har noe ord for X er speilbildet til [folkegruppe Y] har n ord for […]

  23. Tarina said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

    quote most Greeks of Homer and Hesiod's time considered "mythic" speech–that is speech that was from the heart, based on personal experience, or based on a sacred source of information–an expression of truth, whereas "logos" indicated word-play and trickery. unquote

    Amen! I agree… how smarter are we as humans, and the world is in its worst state yet, plus we aren't overall any healthier, at least not without mentally/emotionally paying for it.

  24. ACE de dessin said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    There is no word for asexual(ity)…

    (the "sexual" orientation–for lack of better terminology–where a person does not experience sexual attraction [That's the pseudo-textbook description.])

    …beyond it being the Lack (a-) of Something (sexuality). In an already touchy area, this causes… issues.

    This is likening it to the provided example of coolness only being known as unwarmth, or the lack of warmth.

    The issue is, how does one develop the terminology that one needs for proper, communicable, and intelligible expression from one person to another? This seems to invite issues with what can only become jargon due to the comparative minority status in society, and a tendency to fly completely under the radar.

  25. Amondawa has no word for ‘time’? « Sentence first said,

    May 21, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    […] have “no word for X”, where X could be hello, tomorrow, burger, ten, accountability, robin, and so on. Sometimes it’s sheer fantasy, sometimes the language simply has (or has had) no need for the […]

  26. Betsy said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 3:05 am

    "The Aka and Ngandu peoples don't masturbate. (They don't even have a word for it.)" http://psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201106/are-you-exiting-the-gene-pool-due-low-sperm-count-or-ed?page=2 – citing a study by Hewlett & Hewlett: http://jambo.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kiroku/asm_normal/abstracts/pdf/31-3/107-125.pdf

  27. Ben Finney said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 1:29 am

    > There isn't any word in English equivalent to the Hebrew "mitzvah,"…used to mean "action that conforms to God's commandment that we do good deeds for others."… The absence of such a word in English demonstrates that acts of kindness are alien to the cultures of the English speaking peoples.

    Would it perhaps demonstrate that English-speaking peoples don't need acts of kindness commanded by any supreme being but can instead do good deeds regardless of any god?

  28. “Newspeak” and Diluting Orwell’s Message -- a Nadder! said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

    […] has no such word, it most certainly has a phrase for it. To see the silliness, here's a list of 'no word for X' claims on LanguageLog, each with its own post rebutting […]

  29. Fairies - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education said,

    July 24, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    […] and linguists on each other—and on the general public, which loves stories about how in language X there is no word for Y. With the Eskimo snow-word myth they get what they […]

  30. the mystical tongue of the noble savage! | text on the beach said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    […] of things about the social construction of yada yada yada . . . because, clearly, if there’s no word for a castrated former stud in its fourth year, then the cognitive patterns of English speakers cannot […]

  31. Harold said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    No future tense in Sicilian Dialect?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3oIiH7BLmgUploaded on May 24, 2010

    Professor Philip Zimbardo conveys how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. Time influences who we are as a person, how we view relationships and how we act in the world. Zimbardo believes Sicilians are oriented toward the present because their dialect has no single-word form for a future tense. (Latin future dropped out or was never used in Vulgar Latin but constructed with auxiliary verb "habere" , which Sicilian also does).

  32. 정 and The Four Loves | The DMZ Linguist said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

    […] I’ve commented about this before; but stereotypes, while often over-exaggerated, can help a person unfamiliar with a culture take their first steps towards understanding.  Also helpful, is finding a way to relate your personal experience to the new things you are learning.  Which, in popular belief, may be something close to impossible.  Jeong is often cited among a host of “emotions for which there is no word in English”.  (Linguistic protip: anytime anyone says, “there is no word for X in language Y”, they’re bullshitting you.) […]

  33. Fifty-Five English Words for Snow | Poetry & Contingency said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

    […] there is the LL mother lode on this topic. UPDATE: some recent meta-discussion – "Bad Science Reporting Again: The […]

  34. No words for…… said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    […] in 2010. And for anyone looking for unusual examples to illustrate essays, there is even a "No word for X archive" on the site. Manna from heaven for anyone wanting to address language as a way of knowing! […]

  35. IS EVERYTHING TRANSLATABLE? | Pater Familias said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

    […] alleged counterexamples. Taking a similar tack, the linguistics site Language Log has an archive (here) which collects blog entries which puncture claims that there is no equivalent for a particular […]

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