We've often observed how fond people are of noting (or rather, claiming) that language L has an interesting number N of words for some concept X. N may be zero, which is taken to mean that the L-ians are unable to grasp the concept X, or at least have some special difficulty with it. Alternatively, N may be unusually large, which is taken as evidence that X has an especially central role in L-ian consciousness. In such cases, the factual claims about the L-ian lexicon are almost always false; and even if the word-count claims were true, the logic of the argument is unsound.
Occasionally, someone makes both sorts of claims about a single language; and there's a fine (though unserious) pair of specimens in Georgia Graham, "What has Iceland done for Britain?", The Telegraph 4/17/2010.
Ms. Graham leads with this query:
Vast clouds of volcanic dust from Iceland have grounded planes in Britain and much of northern Europe, creating chaos for travellers. Which begs the question: what has Iceland done for us lately?
Given the Telegraph's fondness for linguistic naming and shaming, I feel that this should count as an official announcement that "begs the question" now means "raises the question", and no longer has any culturally-reliable connection to the logical fallacy of petitio principii.
Anyhow, having begged her question, Ms. Graham goes on to list ten answers, from the Cod Wars and Björk to the LazyTown television program and the decline of West Ham football. Item number 5 is linguistic:
Iceland's language makes British manners impossible to impart – there is no word for please.
Icelandic does offer 45 different ways to say the word green, however. Useful.
You may not be surprised to learn that both of these claims are apparently bogus. (By which I mean simply "incorrect, unbelievable or silly", not "consciously dishonest". Just in case Ms. Graham or the Telegraph is moved to take the issue up with The Hon. Mr. Justice Eady.)
The "no word for please" business is perhaps the most hackneyed instance of the "no word for X" meme. A quick web search reveals that English speakers are worried that many, many other languages have "no word for please": besides Icelandic, the first few pages of results yield warnings about Danish, Hawaian, Finnish, Ingush, Hindi, Swedish, French, Wolof, Munsee, Unami, Mursi, Malayalam, Dutch, Somali, Ojibway, Hungarian, Urdu, Quebecoise, Mongolian, and so on.
It's certainly true that behavioral norms and expectations do vary from culture to culture, enough that polite behavior in one culture may be interpreted as offensive in another. But there's nothing about cultural differences to be learned from the fact that other languages generally don't have a single word with the diverse syntactic and pragmatic distribution of English please — the same thing could be said about nearly any common word in nearly any language.
Languages may variously make available polite words that are broader or narrower than English please (e.g. Icelandic takk, which I gather has some of the functions of both English "please" and "thank you"), or special morphological devices for polite requests, or conventional multi-word polite expressions (e.g. French s'il vous plait), etc. And people can always choose to frame requests or suggestions in more elaborate ways construed as polite ("if you don't mind, I wonder if you could …").
The business about "45 different ways to say the word green", however, is a bit more puzzling. Tim MacDonald, who sent me a link to Ms. Graham's article, and who knows enough Icelandic to be skeptical of the claim, wondered whether "this [could] have started out as a more familiar claim that Greenlanders have 45 words for 'ice', and been metathesised".
I'm not sure — but the idea is not original to Ms. Graham. She may have gotten it from a blog post, "No Icelandic Word for Please", Iceland Express 11/12/2007, whose sub-head is "45 different ways to say the word 'green,' but if you want a beer just say 'I want beer'". The same post observes that "Learning Icelandic is like getting a tattoo on your arse: it’s time consuming, painful, and you rarely get a chance to show it off."
In the comments on that post, "Amanda" notes (without using please…) that "You’ve got me hooked now, I MUST know more about the 45 words for green."
"Erik" responds teasingly that "The REALLY crazy thing is that they all rhyme with 'peanut'", but gives no examples.
Lacking both the tattoo and the knowledge of Icelandic, I'll turn this one over our readers.