No word for integrity?

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According to Michael J. Jordan, "Corruption in Bulgaria tests EU expansion", Christian Science Monitor, 12/31/2008:

As the economy worsened here, so, too, did corruption, says John Heck, who runs an EU-funded, anticorruption project in Sofia. The problems are ingrained deeply into modern Bulgarian society, he says, "Integrity – if you look in the Bulgarian dictionary, you won't find the term."

This is an alternative version of an old anti-corruption anecdote about how language X has no word for "accountability", for X = {French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Bemba, Chinese, …} — see "Solving the world's problems with linguistics", 12/17/2006.

Although I don't know any Bulgarian, I disbelieve Mr. Heck on general principles: when someone makes a sociological point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong. (And if they say or imply that speakers of language L have no way to express concept C, then you'll almost never never lose by betting against them.)

As for assertions in the other direction, that you can learn something important about society S by observing that they have a word W for the esoteric concept E, you can safely make book against those claims as well. This is somewhat less certain — there are plenty of curious concepts out there, and sometimes one of them is associated with a mono-morphemic word in one language or another. But the level of, well, integrity among those who invent such claims is on average extremely low, and so the chances are very good that any particular example belongs to the category of assertion to which philosophers assign the technical term "bullshit".

There was recently a great example of this in Geoff Pullum's post "Gaelic as a bonsai word bag (with two missing)". Allan Brown, in the Times, asserted that

… sgriob is [...] the Gaelic word describing the tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky. The fact that Gaelic has a six-letter word for this while English has a twelve-word phrase reveals a lot about Gaelic ways and priorities.

Wanna bet?  In the comments, sh gave the entry in Dwelly [= Edward Dwelly (1911), Faclair Gàidhlig gu Beurla le Dealbhan/The Illustrated [Scottish] Gaelic- English Dictionary (10th ed.), Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, ISBN 1874744041]:

sgrìob, -a, an, s.f. Scratch, track, mark, line. scrape. 2 Furrow, as a plough. 3 Cart-rut. 4 Trip, journey, excursion. 5 Calamity, bereavement. 6. Itching of the lip, superstitiously supposed to portend, a kiss (s.-pòige), or s.-dibhe (or s.-drama), a dram. 7 Curry-comb. 8 Stroke of a whip-saw. 9†† Hurt. S. do ’n Ghalltachd, a trip to the Lowlands; thoir s. mu ’n cuairt, take a turn round, make a circuit; s. an t-sàibh mhóir, a stroke of the whip-saw; s.-croinn, the furrow of a plough; s. bhuntàta, a drill of potatoes.

In other words,  sgrìob drama means something like "dram-scratch" or "dram-itch",  interpreted as the feeling you have in your lip just before drinking a dram. It's not a six-letter monomorphemic word, it's a two-word phrase, created by combining the word for "scratch" or "itch" with the word for "small draught of liquor", with the sort of particularizing interpretation typical of such phrases. For a similarly amazing example, consider, oh, say, chair lift, referring to "a device for transporting people up a mountain slope, usually consisting of seats suspended from a continuously moving overhead cable". Just think — this perverse language, English, can express in 9 letters a concept that we would otherwise need 20 words to describe.

I couldn't resist looking "integrity" up in an online English-Bulgarian dictionary, which returned five possible Bulgarian translations, of which честност "honesty, loyalty, faithfulness, straightness, fair-dealing, fairness, faith, honour, integrity, probity, rectitude, sportsmanship, straightforwardness, truth, honor" seems to be the most appropriate.  Why do intelligent people — I presume that John Heck must have an IQ somewhat higher than that of a house plant in order to be appointed as head of an EU-funded anti-corruption project in Sofia — insist on saying things about well-documented languages that can trivially be shown to be false?



77 Comments

  1. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    Surely the way to make legitimate conclusions about a culture given a dominant language is not from its word inventory, but rather, from the relative frequencies of those words in everyday usage. Any written language of sufficient age will have accumulated a "long tail" of words seen only in unabridged dictionaries.

  2. Rob P. said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

    And the first of the five translations in your list appears to be a cognate? I don't read Cyrillic, but I take that to say "integritet". Is it a false cognate?

  3. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    I would make the claim that "language X has no word for concept Y" is not actually making a claim about the properties of language X — or indeed any sort of linguistic claim at all. It's a rhetorical device, hyperbole, not to be taken literally. Compare "there's no word 'failure' in my dictionary".

    [Garrett needs to Google the word "linguification", doesn't he? And he particularly needs to read the post called For the millionth time, it's not hyperbole. —GKP]

  4. jfruh said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    Though I understand why you're sensitive to statements like Heck's, my gut-level reaction is that he wasn't attempting to be literal — that is, he wasn't actually suggesting some sort of Sapir-Worf the-Bulgarian-language-cannot-accommodate-the-concept-of-integrity thesis; rather, he was using language (or, more specifically, dictionaries) as a metaphor, which isn't terribly uncommon. It's the equivalent of him saying "If you look 'corruption' up in the dictionary, it'll say 'Bulgaria'" — which native speakers of idiomatic English would be able to parse easily enough and would know better than to take literally.

    My reaction may be colored by my knowledge that "no word for X" statements are invariably nonsense, and my assumption that anyone running an anti-corruption project in Bulgaria would probably know some Bulgarian, and probably deals with any number of government agencies and comissions which actually have the word "integrity" or their equivalent in their names.

    [Oh, looks like jfruh needs a linguification lesson too. —GKP]

  5. Alif Baa said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    I'm not so sure if he meant that as a factual claim, though.
    I think it rather likely that he was using a figure of speech. For example, it's not entirely uncommon to hear people say it, somewhat sarcastically, of any concept, as in: "Love? That word is not in my dictionary."

    [Ooh! Alif also needs to Google "linguification". People just haven't been paying attention, have they? —GKP]

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Alif Baa: I think it rather likely that he was using a figure of speech. For example, it's not entirely uncommon to hear people say it, somewhat sarcastically, of any concept, as in: "Love? That word is not in my dictionary."

    You might be right, in which case we need to turn this one over to Geoff Pullum at the linguification desk. But I'm not so sure — if you follow the numerous references in my 2006 post on this topic, e.g. this one, you'll see that it's common for respected international experts to make this sort of point in a way that leaves no doubt whatever that they mean it literally.

  7. Karen said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    People who have been paying attention don't quite understand why linguification is such a sin instead of a garden-variety metaphor playing on dictionary look-up or spelling or something like that.

    Seriously.

    Obviously it's not true, but neither is "my love is like a red, red rose that's newly blown in June". Is that gardenification?

  8. rpsms said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

    Being an english word, it propably is literally true that "integrity" is not in the bulgarian dictionary.

  9. Franz Bebop said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

    Apparently linguists have no word for "public relations." ;-)

    All of this whining on the Language Log about laypeople's dopey misunderstandings of language and grammar isn't achieving very much. Geoffrey Pullum writes that he feels like a man howling into a blizzard, demanding that it stop snowing. Well, if your scolding hasn't been effective, why continue? Why not try something new?

    How about instituting some kind of yearly awards for (mal-)achievements in linguistic commentary? Start doling out prizes, complete with a nice shiny trophy and a certificate. It would be something like the Darwin Awards or the Ignobel Prizes. You could have a yearly ceremony.

    You professors are pretty funny. Your award ceremony would be just as glamorous and entertaining as the other infamous prizes.

    I hereby nominate John Heck for the Language Log's annual prize for Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Miscounting. He's especially deserving of this honor, because he's an EU official who really ought to know better than to say something so spectacularly dumb about his host country.

  10. Jan Schreuder said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    I agree with Mark that this does not seem to be a case of linguification, the way it was phrased. I have one question. G.F.K.'s comment seem to suggest that linguification as a rhetorical device is verboten. Why?

  11. Jan Schreuder said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    typo: seem should be seems

  12. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    There ctually sued to be an award for linguistic quackery, the Becky Award, unfortunately awarded only once in 2006 to Louann Brizendine.

    It really ought to be perpetuated…

  13. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    @jfruh:

    "anyone running an anti-corruption project in Bulgaria would probably know some Bulgarian"

    I wish I believed this was necessarily true.

    My experience in Africa showed that it is all too possible to spend years in a country and nevertheless to spend all your time in a little hermetic bubble where you protect yourself from the Other by strictly limiting your exposure to him, his subnormal culture and his defective language – "dialect" rather.

    I saw this all too often with both expats (missionaries and secular) and with Africans from other cultures than the local one.

    In fact there is a notable association between lack of respect for one's hosts and their culture and ignorance of their language, which I suspect works in both directions causally.

  14. jfruh said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    I'm with Karen in wondering why linguification like this is such an unforgiveable sin. Admittedly, I'm seeing the quote out of context, but I don't think that any literal Sapir-Worfism is intended. Is saying "The Bulgarians don't know the meaning of the word 'integrity'", along the lines of "I don't know the meaning of the word 'quit'" — which is what I'm guessing Heck is trying to say — worse than any other metaphor? Would, or should, Heck calling Bulgaria "a cesspool of corruption" bring a similar amount of rage to plumbers, since Bulgaria is not, in fact, an actual pit where feces are collected?

    I guess I am confused about why saying, and explicitly meaning, "language x has no word for y, and thus culture x has no concept corresping to y" is of equal badness to saying, dryly and metaphorically, "concept y just isn't is culture x's vocabulary". Surely linguists would not insist that a word — even a word like "vocabulary" deployed in linguistics — have only a single meaning in every context? I await enlightenment.

  15. Tim said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

    I have to agree with other commenters who say that Mr. Heck was not literally making use of the X have no word for Y argument. He was just employing a well-known idiom.

    I also have to agree with those who ask why "linguification" is supposed to be in any way bad? Why is "linguification" any different than Karen's "gardenification"? In fact, in the original post coining the term, GKP says that one of his supporters "truly hear[s] the music". Isn't this "musickification"? Or was GKP really singing his posts?

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

    I think it is actually considerably more insulting to say

    "Integrity – if you look in the Bulgarian dictionary, you won't find the term."

    than "Bulgaria is a cesspool of corruption".

    The latter is indeed just a metaphor; but the former surely implies a constitutional inabilty on the part of Bulgarians (or Bulgarian speakers) to even grasp the concept of integrity. I think that's a whole level more offensive, myself. And it does convey the idea that Bulgarians are moral defectives, not just living in a state which is, at present, very corrupt.

  17. jfruh said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    David — Yes, I quite agree about the level of insult to Bulgarians, who are surely getting the short end of the stick on this. My queries are meant to understand why GKP thinks that the former — a metaphor deploying to a certain extent the language of linguistics, instead of the language of plumbing and waste disposal — is an insult to linguists, or linguistics, or language itself, in a way that the latter is not an insult to plumbers or plumbing.

  18. Christopher Stone said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    Perhaps a lot of the backlash against linguistification is because of the vast amounts of misinformation there already exists about linguistics and language? You don't have to search even this blog very hard before you find heaps of examples where commentators in both the media and otherwise routinely get even the most rudimentary things wrong–unironically. Having people add to that heap, even if they only mean it ironically, can certainly be frustrating, especially considering the amount of rubbish out there that people DO believe without reservation.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    @jfruh:

    OK, I take your point.

    However, I think the particularly toxic aspect of linguification (as opposed to plumbing metaphors) does lie in the very intimate connexion between language and what makes us human at all; and that to say that someone lacks a (single) word for something in lay discussion is to imply that they lack the concept, and if they lack the word for a virtue, they lack the virtue, or even the capacity for the virtue. This is in fact what is *intended* to be implied by this sort of insult.

    I agree that the fact that this is linguistic nonsense is a bit of a side issue in this particular case.

    (it does seem a bit odd that an EU official tasked with helping to eliminate corruption in a member country should publicly imply that his task is impossible – maybe he's just tactless,or come to that, misreported. The rest of the article would appear to show that there are indeed Bulgarian speakers with a pretty clear concept of integrity out there. Maybe they're bilingual in Turkish?)

  20. A Reader said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    So while a number of the commenters have missed the point on linguification- the idea acknowledges that the effect is usually intended to be humorous- Jan Schreuder has an excellent point. Mr. Pullum wrote in Linguifiying (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003312.html):

    Why linguify? I have no idea. It just doesn't look like a good writing idea to me.

    He seems to object to it on some fundamental level, without (at least in that initial post- perhaps there is further argumentation to be found elsewhere in the depths of Language Log's archives?) giving any good reason (or actually any reason at all) as to why it is not a good writing idea.

    Assuming this was linguification and not actually some kind of bizarre miscomprehension of the Bulgarian language, I think it is a quite well done bit of writing (if it is otherwise, as Mr. Lieberman thinks, then simply insert any of the other quite effective uses of linguification which people use all the time).

    And as a sort of dated side note, linguification should actually qualify as hyperbole. The OED defines it as 'A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally'. Mr. Pullum has accurately noted that linguification is not exaggeration- however, the 'extravagant' bit is in normal usage, and certainly fits most examples of linguifying. Apologies if this is redundant.

  21. Kit said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Linguification may not technically be hyperbole, but as hyperbolic millions of commenters have already pointed out in this and other posts, it's a figure of speech and not a serious claim about language. The rage (and frequency) with which Geoffrey K. Pullum and now Mark Liberman attack it resembles any other usage pet peeve, like detesting split infinitives or "hopefully." The whole thing's silly and it's getting tedious.

  22. Bulgarian Intergrity - Or Why you shouldn’t make stupid statements about languages. « ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    [...] volume set of word studies that essentially do something very similar to what is criticized in this Language Log Post. Basically, some guy in the European Union made a stupid statement about what a person can and [...]

  23. The other Mark P said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    Is an EU Commissioner really supposed to be humorous? While I don't think public figures have to be serious all the time, it should be absolutely clear when they are making a joke and when they are telling the truth.

    When Heck says that Bulgarian has no word for integrity, you can be pretty sure that large numbers of people will take him literally, whether he meant it or not.

    The situation is different when people use linguification in conversation: they have context and tone to make it clear they are joking, and also are not officials appointed to discuss the matter. Context is very important: I might tell a smutty story among friends, but it would be inappropriate for Heck to tell one in an interview.

  24. goofy said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    In this post Pullum tries to explain why linguification is not metaphor. I'm still not sure I get it…
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003679.html

  25. Jay Levitt said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

    What you all don't know is that the corrupt government has redacted the entry for "integrity" in all Bulgarian dictionaries.

    @The Other Mark P: "When Heck says that Bulgarian has no word for integrity, you can be pretty sure that large numbers of people will take him literally, whether he meant it or not." OK, let's say that's true. Let's even say that's significantly more true than for any "acceptable" type of metaphor. So?

    I think Douglas Adams said it best, in the character of Dirk Gently: "The word 'impossible' is not in my dictionary. In fact, everything from 'herring' to 'marmalade' seems to be missing."

  26. jfruh said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    @goofy — Hmm, with that post, I actually sort of begin to see his point. To use an extended metaphor — in my abortive academic career, I studied late antiquity (a high-falutin' academic phrase for the period that straddles the late ancient world and beginning of the middle ages in Europe and the Near East). Anyway, it used to drive me nuts when people would use the phrase "the fall of Rome" as a metaphor for sexual decadence or general over-the-top extravagence — not because Roman metaphors were bad, but because that metaphor was wrong — by the time the Roman Empire collapsed, it had become all Christian and relatively non-decadent, and anyway decadence or lack thereof had nothing to do with the political collapse of the Roman state.

    Just so, I can see why it would be infuriating for a linguist when people use metaphors based on a cursory or wholly incorrect understanding of the linguistic instruments that they're attempting to use as metaphors. Still, I think statements of the "The word 'quit' isn't in my dictionary" variety don't deserve the scorn.

  27. James Wimberley said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    There may well be a word for "mote" in Bulgarian, but the word "beam" is missing from the EU thesaurus.
    [GKP: please explain why this is unfunny, that is an improper attempt at humour, like this.]

  28. John Cowan said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    Don't you talk to me about linguification, Geoff Pullum. Why, I can't even write the word down, much less read you blathering on about it.

  29. Adrian said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

    I agree with most everybody else: get off Heck's back. This particular figure of speech may irritate the hell out of you guys at LL, but we could care less. Happy New Year!

  30. Franz Bebop said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    Jay Levitt: "@The Other Mark P: 'When Heck says that Bulgarian has no word for integrity, you can be pretty sure that large numbers of people will take him literally, whether he meant it or not.' OK, let's say that's true. Let's even say that's significantly more true than for any "acceptable" type of metaphor. So?"

    If Heck didn't mean it literally, then it's not a metaphor, it's an ironic overstatement. And in that case, it moves beyond simply insulting your Bulgarian hosts, and starts making suggestions about language itself which are not supported by the facts. At least a few listeners will understand it not as tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, but as a factoid. That misunderstanding is worth correcting.

  31. Bryan said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

    Mark P, what makes you think he was trying to be humorous? I don't think he intended his comment to be interpreted literally, but neither do I think he intended it to be interpreted humorously, or as a joke. I don't see any reason why "figurative" and "serious" must be mutually exclusive.

    As for GKP's condescending attitude… well it's certainly one of the few things that frustrates me about Language Log. I can appreciate the distinction he is attempting to draw between metaphor and linguification. (Although I don't necessarily agree that this difference implies some sort of moral judgment against linguification—the comment in question here seems perfectly and immediately and unambiguously understandable as a figure of speech.) And I certainly appreciate his (and al the LL authors') efforts to educate us all on matters linguistic, that's why I keep reading. But it's never pleasant to feel insulted.

  32. W. Kiernan said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

    Ha, not only is there no word for "integrity" in Bulgarian, but also the German word "schadenfreude," which means "pleasure at the misfortune of others," is untranslatable into English.

  33. chris said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 9:14 pm

    Question:
    Is GKP need of xkcd's comments virus?

    Well I obviously am, if only to stop me inadvertently leaving words out when attempting to write something. Sheesh.

  34. Stephen Jones said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

    Ha, not only is there no word for "integrity" in Bulgarian, but also the German word "schadenfreude," which means "pleasure at the misfortune of others," is untranslatable into English.

    It's factoids like this that really make me gloat!

  35. Stephen Jones said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

    The point about a metaphor is that it can't sensibly be taken literally. Here it is a perfectly sensible, I would even say probable presumption, that the author is using the 'figure of speech' literally.

    Another one I've often heard which is clearly intended to be taken literally is that 'Arabs have no word for privacy'.

  36. Alif Baa said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 2:04 am

    I just feel that though I can understand why linguification would be annoying to linguists, sometimes it's just really not that harmful?
    For example, I just read in a comment (about Bill Ayers)

    "His picture is next to the word 'treason" in Webster's Dictionary."

    Yeah, obviously that's just not the case, but what's the big deal! It helps the guy make his point (even if it happens to be one that I do not agree with.) And I doubt that there's anyone out there that'd take this at face value. Stifling the whole range of expressions for fear that "THEY may not get it" is like, oh, decrying a certain New Yorker cover for much the very same reasons. Which is to say, give them a little more credit.

    Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding the reason behind the outrage at linguification? Perhaps it's not a matter of misinforming the public (deliberately or otherwise) but one of simply saying things that aren't true in your field, which annoys you by default. But I guess it's used to establish a point, and well, their target audience is simply not generally composed of linguists.

  37. Ian Preston said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 6:36 am

    If I were to say, figuratively, that a word were "not in my dictionary" I think I might be suggesting that I didn't use it rather than that I didn't understand it. Saying that a word is not in some country's dictionary also conveys something weaker to me than saying that there is no word for it in their language. It suggests that they are not given to using the word enough for it to be worth recording rather than that they are incapable of understanding it.

    I make this minor point without trying to defend the fatuity of any particular instance of use and with extreme humility having just discovered from the linguification desk that I may be one of the most arrogant people there are.

  38. Dougal Stanton said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    It seems most people have an issue with this being labelled linguification because it is obvious (to those same people) that the dictionary claim isn't true. So how about this real-life example that I came across recently?

    Someone claimed that one cannot support a cause passively, eg one could not be a supporter of women's rights without working at a domestic abuse crisis centre or being a lobbyist or something. Their rationale was that "support" is a verb, and verbs are "doing words".

    This seemed to me to be a perfect example of linguification:

    1. Make a (wrong) statement about language
    2. Extend that claim to say something about society in general

    I argued the case with this person at the time (that they were talking gibberish, and that they were using linguification to support a poor argument) but nothing interesting came of the conversation.

  39. Adam said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 7:11 am

    My guess is that he comments on the Bulgarian language, because if he were to say what he means: "Bulgarians, as a people, are inherently corrupt" it'd be too obviously nakedly racist.

  40. alex boulton said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 7:11 am

    Maybe we could also say there's no word for "integrity" in English – that's why we borrowed a Latin word…

    But what did we do before 1533? The first recorded usage according to the OED.

  41. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    I tend to agree with rpsms. Failing that, perhaps the dictionary he's using was compiled by corrupt lexicographers?

  42. Catanea said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    Thank-you. This helps a bit. Because I have been worried throughout all this commentary about Anglophones having fifteen words for честност…
    as above – honesty, loyalty, faithfulness, straightness, fair-dealing, fairness, faith, honour, integrity, probity, rectitude, sportsmanship, straightforwardness, truth, honor.
    It must be highly significant of something…?

  43. B.W. said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    I am just as annoyed by all these rants about linguification as some of the other commenters here. Why is it so hard to see for the language log people that they are hyper-sensitive because of their profession?

    Consider this bit on 'real' hyperbole from Prof. Pullum's post http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003265.html:
    '"you can't help yourself from trying to fill in the blanks. And after a few seconds of this, your paracingulate medial prefrontal cortex is throbbing like a stubbed toe." His underlying claim is that the part of your brain that tries to figure out what the other person is saying gets a little bit of a workout and it causes discomfort. But it doesn't really hurt with the sudden agony of a stubbed toe. If it did, however, his claim about it causing discomfort would be all the truer.'

    This example is just as bad as linguification – maybe we should call it neurofication (neurolofication?) It makes a point about listening effort by making a rubbish statement about the brain. Most people won't care, but I dislike it because I work in neuroscience and it gets on my nerves that people write so much nonsense about it. And there's just as much nonsense being written about the brain as there is about language. So, should I start a neurolofication blog? I don't think so…

  44. Doug said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    @Adam,

    I would not interpret the statement to mean "Bulgarians, as a people, are inherently corrupt".

    Nothing about the statment suggests any "inherentness" to me. The Bulgarians could presumably put the word into their dictionaries and clean up their act.

    Languages acquire news words all the time; people learn new words all the time; dictionaries are revised all the time. It's not clear to me that these linguistic metaphors/linguifications are necessarily meant to ascribe inherent ineradicable features to peoples, cultures, or languages.

  45. Dominic said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    @Doug: "Languages acquire news words all the time; people learn new words all the time; dictionaries are revised all the time. It's not clear to me that these linguistic metaphors/linguifications are necessarily meant to ascribe inherent ineradicable features to peoples, cultures, or languages."

    Do bear in mind that many laypeople don't realize this. Think of the uproar over *gasp* NEW WORDS being added to the dictionary. In fact many people seem not to regard the dictionary as based on usage, but rather an authority on what constitutes a "real word."

    I do realize we're discussing the dictionary indirectly here, as the author (presumably) meant it metaphorically, but I believe "the dictionary" signifies something different to LL readers than to laypeople.

  46. James Wimberley said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Doug: what' s wrong with Heck's remark is precisely that it's an insulting and false generalisation about the Bulgarian people and culture. I did some work in Bulgaria in the 1990s and met the usual mix of people, some more honest than I am, some less. Using a laboured linguistic metaphor to make this smear is a venial stylistic offence or none at all. Compare "He's so honest he doesn't know the word kickback": praise given in a similar form.

    The figure of speech isn't hyperbole, as Pullum observes, but more likely antiphrasis.

  47. Tim said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    In the post that Ian Preston linked to, GKP takes issue with the statement "Most of the windows were locked and shuttered and apparently nobody had even mentioned the word paint in its presence for many years." He claims that, as linguification, this phrasing serves no purpose to enhance the author's writing.

    I would say the opposite, though. Surely, I'm not the only one who thinks the author's chosen wording is much more interesting than if he had simply said "it hadn't been painted recently." In fact, the words the author chose seem to make the point even more strongly.

    So, not only do I disagree with the idea that linguification is to be deprecated, I have to disagree with the idea that it is neutrally purposeless.

  48. Tulunnguaq said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    The Bulgarian comment reminds me of a swipe made by a Finnish friend many years ago, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    We were en route to Finland together via the Baltic states, and on arriving in Estonia, I learned that the Estonian language "only" had 15 cases. As I knew from my studies that Finnish had 16 cases, I asked my friend: which case does Estonian not have?

    He answered: "The genitive – because they don't own anything"

    ——

    Of course you can't make such politically incorrect statements nowadays – I'm sure the Estonians reinstated the genitive in the late 90s when their GDP exceeded a certain limit.

  49. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    I found Pullum's earlier posts about linguification interesting, and I appreciate his arguments that linguification is different from scalar exaggeration ("there were a million people at the restaurant") or ordinary metaphors ("my landlord is an ogre"). But like other commenters here, I find it hard to understand the intensity of the ire sometimes directed toward linguification by Pullum and others here at LL.

    However, if it's due partly to linguists being irritated in general at misconceptions the public has about language, or sloppy claims the public makes about language, I guess I can somewhat relate. I am a professional mathematician who is also very interested in language, and I must admit that I get peeved (usually silently) by some uses of mathematical terminology in casual speech that seem like sloppy or mangled or imprecise metaphors. Examples include when people say "exponentially" just to mean "very quickly".

  50. Zackary Sholem Berger said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    Similarly, as a biology major I got really self-righteously indignant at layfolk who would say "She's got jealousy in her DNA!" or the like. I would say "There's no jealousy in DNA!" and take pains to point out the complexities of molecular biology. Whereupon people would look at me blankly and walk away. Now somewhat older, in my wilted salad days, I realize that people just talk that way. It's okay! No one gets hurt. I can ignore it. I don't have to be the savior of truth and all the sciences.

    In general, this is an example of an age-old human foible: the dreaded prescriptivism. Even linguists who spend every professional and blogging hour inveighing against the Big P suddenly find, when their professional ox is gored, that You Musn't Write That Way. No reason is given (as in the case of linguification), just that it's an esthetic violation – it just doesn't sound right.

    (I understand that the problem is also – per LL – that linguification makes false statements about language. To which I say, there are false statements whose harms are insignificant.)

  51. Jay Levitt said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    @Zackary Sholem Berger:

    I understand that the problem is also – per LL – that linguification makes false statements about language. To which I say, there are false statements whose harms are insignificant."

    Thanks. That's what I was trying to say.

    @Franz Bebop:

    At least a few listeners will understand it not as tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, but as a factoid. That misunderstanding is worth correcting.

    Is not.

  52. Tamara said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    @Tim

    I agree completely. I am a writer, and I don't see any logic to declaring linguification a writerly sin. I thought both the example Tim mentioned and another one ("Millar is no angel – an arrogant, out-spoken man guilty of injecting EPO…but he's served a 2 year ban and while he may not have found humility he's certainly looked it up in the dictionary") were very cleverly phrased, quite good writing, really.

  53. Joe Hankin said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

    @Tamara said,

    I second this. This discussion of linguification seems to be blurring the line between generalizing about a people based on false claims about their language (as with the Bulgarians, or Eskimos, or whoever), which is reprehensible, and using turns of phrase that involve dictionaries, which in some cases may be lazy writing but on the balance doesn't seem to be hurting anyone.

  54. Adam said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    @Doug

    OK, not inherently, but leaving aside the naffness of the rhetorical device of linguification, what he's using the device for is to make a comment about supposed national character – a comment that would be unacceptable were it to be made directly.

  55. The other Mark P said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 3:34 am

    Mark P, what makes you think he was trying to be humorous?

    I don't think he was trying to be humorous. Other people were. Namely that he was using humour to get his point across about how difficult his job was. I think he was being straight out insulting.

    But, get this people — I'm not angry about it. If I was Bulgarian I would be peeved. As a neutral party, I'm not even that. I would suggest that most other people who think Heck's remark is improper fall into the same camp.

    Those of you excited about the "anger", "ire" etc are attacking a straw man. Language Log is not on a crusade against Linguification, as I see it, it just opposes it when it sees it.

  56. Stephen Jones said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 4:46 am

    I would say "There's no jealousy in DNA!"

    Are you suggesting that jealousy is not a genetically encoded trait? You'd be out on a limb there. We use 'in their DNA' to mean that the trait has been inherited, is due to nature not nurture. In that respect jealousy, like the ability to walk, learn language and make irrational decisions can be said to be in our DNA.

    The problem with linguification is that is presenting clearly false information, it's not using a kind of shorthand, as the phrase 'in their DNA' is.

    using turns of phrase that involve dictionaries, which in some cases may be lazy writing but on the balance doesn't seem to be hurting anyone.

    As I have said before we have no way of knowing that the writer is being metaphorical, or just 'using a turn of phrase'. And the implied meaning the phrase, that integrity is a concept entirely alien to Bulgarian culture, is anything but harmless. Suppose you are supposed to approve a bank loan for a recent immigrant from Bulgaria, and are under the impression backed up by the dictionary, that the concept of integrity is absent from the proposed borrower's culture?

  57. Chris said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    Suppose you are supposed to approve a bank loan for a recent immigrant from Bulgaria, and are under the impression backed up by the dictionary, that the concept of integrity is absent from the proposed borrower's culture?

    Then you are an idiot, which, considering recent trends in the banking industry, isn't all that surprising in a loan approval officer.

    The actual dictionary doesn't support this statement (if you interpret it as a statement); moreover, it's obvious that the concept of integrity isn't something that only some cultures will have experience with like snow, sommeliers or sumo (a concept for which, AFAIK, no language except Japanese has a word, unless they borrowed the Japanese one; but this is hardly surprising), so interpreting this as a statement rather than a figure of speech is obviously silly.

  58. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    @ Tulunnguaq: We were en route to Finland together via the Baltic states, and on arriving in Estonia, I learned that the Estonian language "only" had 15 cases. As I knew from my studies that Finnish had 16 cases,

    A more nuanced statement is given by Karlsson in his Finnish Grammar of 1983: "Finnish has about 15 cases."

  59. Jay Levitt said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    @Stephen Jones:

    The problem with linguification is that is presenting clearly false information, it's not using a kind of shorthand, as the phrase 'in their DNA' is.

    Are you really stating that "in their DNA" can be a figurative shorthand, but that "in the dictionary" must always be literal?

    Or are you being subtly subtle?

  60. Stephen Jones said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    so interpreting this as a statement rather than a figure of speech is obviously silly.

    Why; why is this so much more clearly a figure of speech than saying there was no word for 'privacy' in Arabic, which phrase was meant literally.

    Are you really stating that "in their DNA" can be a figurative shorthand, but that "in the dictionary" must always be literal

    No; 'in their DNA' is figurative shorthand for an inherited trait; 'not in the dictionary' is figurative shorthand for not in the language.

    People aren't claiming it's figurative shorthand; they're claiming that it's clear it's not meant to be taken literally, or as figurative shorthand, but is beyond any doubt a metaphor. Looking at the sentence out of context, as we've been given it, it is impossible to make that statement.

  61. Squander Two said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    It doesn't matter whether the remark is genuinely humourous. There are plenty of idioms in the language because they were funny once and then caught on and became cliches and stuck around long after their familarity destroyed their funniness. Bob Hope's in places I didn't even know I had places, for example. In other words, a remark's total lack of humour doesn't imply that none of its constituent usages could have had a humourous origin.

    And what's with this problem that some hypothetical people might not understand the sentence's non-literal intention out of context? That's not a problem with linguification; it's a characteristic of language. Quite a good characteristic, as well: it makes a lot of humour possible. In fact, I've seen this characteristic defended on Language Log whenever prescriptivists insist that an ambiguous usage is a wrong usage.

    How about the expression caught with his pants round his ankles, meaning caught unprepared? It's not hyperbole by Geoff Pullum's definition, as it doesn't imply, say, that his pants were merely half-way down his thighs. That doesn't make it misleading. We manage to understand it.

    By the way, "Integrity" is my middle name.

  62. Jonathan said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    There is a parallel between linguistic, neuroscientific and genetic pseudo-explanations. An assertion is constructed using concepts and language from a technical field, and is used in support of an argument to which it is actually irrelevant. The assertion itself may be true, false or meaningless, but is rendered truthy by its form. In the cases of neuroscience and genetics, the audience is generally expected to believe that the pseudo-explanation is literally true, and probably does for the most part. Naturally, those who understand the technical field feel insulted by this expectation, and by the implication that they would not appreciate the irrelevance of the assertion to the argument.

    In "X has no word for Y" and its variants, my feeling is that it would be an unsophisticated audience indeed who took the statement literally, and an even more unsophisticated author who expected them to do so. I must admit though that underestimating public gullibility is a risky game.

  63. Mark Liberman said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Jonathan: In "X has no word for Y" and its variants, my feeling is that it would be an unsophisticated audience indeed who took the statement literally, and an even more unsophisticated author who expected them to do so.

    In an ideal world, yes. But how else can we read passages like

    Last week Graham Scott gave a lecture on public sector management and governance at the Mercatus Center. Dr Scott was the Secretary of the New Zealand Treasury between 1986 and 1993, which was a very important position at the time of the NZ reform process. [...]

    During his lecture Graham Scott remarked that the word “accountability” has no translation in many languages. For instance, it has no direct translation in French and Spanish. [...] In Scott’s view, the concept of accountability is at the core of the public management reforms in New Zealand. But its absence in many other languages may limit (and perhaps has already limited) the adoption of similar reforms elsewhere. Or it may lower the quality of their results. This would show the power of language in shaping institutions.

    Or these:

    — When Homer Sarasohn got to Japan he found there was no equivalent Japanese word for accountability.
    — One little linguistic sidelight, Salamon mentioned that in most of the countries they have visited there is no comparable word for "accountability." [That's Robert H. Salamon, director of external relations for the Asian Development Bank]

    And so on — it's easy to accumulate dozens of other examples. "Accountability" is a favorite locus for this trope, but there are plenty of others as well.

    And authors/speakers like Scott, Sarasohn and Salamon are not exactly country bumpkins, nor are their audiences.

  64. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Jonathan at 11:16 am helps me understand a bit more why some people are so irritated at linguification. Linguification, in many instances, is more than making a claim about language that's inexact or plain false. Too often, linguifiers hint that their claim about language is saying something about human psychology or culture. Probably not all instances of linguification are equally bad if you take them on a case-by-case basis, but certainly with some of them, there is that Stephen Colbert "truthiness" type of quality — "if I dress up my argument with factoids that superficially sound like they're from a linguistics textbook, it may make my argument appear stronger."

    Being a mathematician, in an attempt to understand, I brought up examples of terminology from my discipline that's sometimes used a bit sloppily in everyday speech. Some examples that come to mind are "exponentially" and "equation" and "infinite". Again, to avoid excessive pedantry, one should probably respond to misuse of terminology on a case-by-case basis.

    I won't object too much to something like "The pace of hockey has increased exponentially over the years, with players today moving infinitely faster than in previous decades" if it's just part of a casual conversation, clearly meant from context to essentially just say "Boy, hockey sure is fast nowadays." However, I'd be borderline offended if such sloppy language were used to try to support some quantitative prediction about incidents of injury in the sport, or something like that.

    Similarly, with linguification, although some instances are probably fairly innocuous ("the word 'paint' hasn't even been said in my basement!") there are undoubtedly many cases where linguifying intends, implicitly or explicitly, to support a larger argument about human psychology or culture (many of the "language X has no word for accountability" instances seem to qualify).

  65. fev said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    This is one of my favorites, from a 2005 LATimes story:

    "The idea of using power to benefit a small circle of friends, relatives and loyalists is so entrenched in the regional culture that there are half a dozen words in Arabic meaning patronage or cronyism."

    Made (without attribution) in a prestige paper, for a high-end audience, with what seems a clear intent to reinforce a point about the relationship between culture and language. And delightfully unaware that once you've said 'patronage or cronyism,' you're already a third of the way to half a dozen words yourself.

    You have to hope the writer is posted to Illinois for the Blago trial, huh?

  66. Jonathan said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    @Mark: Hands up, I was naive. Your examples are really scary. Incidentally, I tried to link to your post at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=849 at the word "neuroscientific" but it doesn't seem to have come out.

    @Skullturf: Absolutely. In fact I almost added "statistical" to my list of abused disciplines.

  67. Jan Schreuder said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 2:31 am

    @Jonathan: Marks examples of linguistic delusions are scary indeed, but they are not examples of linguification as he himself clearly states in his reaction to Alif Baa on December 31.
    Linguification is a rhetorical device, one may like or dislike (De gustibus non disputandum as those pesky Romans wisely observed). Linguistic delusions, however, as any other pathology should be treated by qualified doctors like Mark, especially when they are symptoms of some more serious disorders (tribalism, ethnic prejudices).
    I think that Pullums objections to linguification (I am speculating now, because I am still not clear about his objections to linguification) are based on some, to my mind mistaken, notions that linguification causes or at least feeds on these delusions. If that is the case, he has added to the confusion.
    Even when linguification and linguistic delusions meet (and they are both abundant enough for that to happen frequently) their influence on each other is minimal. As a concrete case Dougal Stantons example of January 1, 2009 @ 7:07 am:
    Someone claimed that one cannot support a cause passively, eg one could not be a supporter of women's rights without working at a domestic abuse crisis centre or being a lobbyist or something. Their rationale was that "support" is a verb, and verbs are "doing words".
    This is a case of linguification and there is clearly also linguistic pathology here. The linguification device, however, works fine and there is nothing wrong with it. The claimant wants to say that a passive supporter is no real supporter in his view, a perfectly rational (though debatable) statement. And I think easily understood by any listener. But as I said there is also some serious linguistic pathology here. First of all not all verbs in English are "doing words" (we have "suffering, existential relational" etc verbs). And even if verbs were "doing words" (and in a way support is a "doing word", with an actor as subject) that doesn't oblige the supporter to work at a domestic abuse center. Their difference is a difference about the proper role of a supporter, not about linguistic facts/delusions.
    But again, the linguification device works fine and is not the trouble here. At most you might say that linguifying in this case brought to the surface an underlying pathology that now can be treated. I think that even that is not the case. Linguification and linguistic delusions are different phenomena and should not be confused (pace Pullum?).

  68. Amys Welt » Blog Archive » Das LanguageLog versagt nie, mir die Abend-/Nachstunden zu vers said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    [...] No word for integrity? [...]

  69. Jim Harries said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 3:42 am

    Of course Bulgarian has no word for 'integrity'. Neither does it have any other English word, as someone (above) pointed out. Now it may have a 'loan-word' from English – but clearly that word will be used in a different way in Bulgarian than in English. So 'safari' in English 'means' 'go and see African animals in the bush', but 'means' 'journey' in Kiswahili.

    Given that word meanings arise from their use (Wittgenstein), the notion that different languages can have equivalents to the same word is incredible, is it not?

  70. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    What are we to make of Napoleon's assertion Impossible n’est pas français?

  71. Chris said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    And authors/speakers like Scott, Sarasohn and Salamon are not exactly country bumpkins, nor are their audiences.
    Although they do seem to have approximately as thorough an understanding of linguistics as creationists do of biology.

  72. S Ivancheva said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    As a Bulgarian, I confirm that there is no direct equivalent in Bulgarian of the English "integrity". We do, however, have words for honesty, decency, consistency, etc which I believe cover the concept. We also have words for theft, cheating, embezzlement. What I mean is that, if Bulgarians abused EU funding, it was not because of a lack of understanding of the terms under which it was provided and the requirement of accountability. In that sense I agree with the author of the post. It is also quite possible that, in his frustration with Bulgarian corruption, John Heck meant to be sarcastic rather than anything else. I also agree with a comment above saying that implying Bulgarians do not have a concept of integrity is more offensive than saying corruption is common in Bulgaria.

  73. Slå upp X i en ordbok och du hittar Y. Om personbeskrivande och metaspråkliga gengångare said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 4:06 am

    [...] vi till Language Log är det som kallas linguification ofta diskuterat (t.ex. här och här). Alltså att (felaktiga) påståenden om språk används för att säga något om [...]

  74. krum said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    Hello, long time Bulgarian reader here! I suppose I missed this because it was posted on 31th December. I did come across, this month, of a mention of "Bulgarian not having a word for integrity" in a discussion of linguification at a linguistics internet forum; I thought it's very strange but didn't care to inquire, and now I see where the origin of that is. I thought it's strange because the English word integrity is precisely one of those esoteric concepts you refer to in the blog post, or maybe more like one of those meta-words that are unique to many languages, covering many more "basic" concepts. Languages seem to aggregate those differently, not surprisingly, that is basic combinatorics.

    In any case, to be pedantic, the set phrase comes I think pretty close to the English meta-concept of "integrity".

  75. krum said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    The phrase, which I wrote in Cyrillic, seems to have been cut off. It's /italic/ chestnost i pochtenost /italic/.

  76. Dominik Lukes said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    Here's an example where the lexical inventory and cultural practices might be relate (albeit on a much less grand scale than the sociologists might wish):
    'Prozvonit [acc.]' is a new Czech verb that means 'to call somebody on their mobile telephone with the intention of notifying them of a [sometimes tacitly] prearranged signal without the expectation that the call will be answered for the purposes of saving money'. I know that English doesn't have the equivalent word for this practice because I looked. That doesn't mean that the practice is unknown or unrecognisable in the English-speaking word but it does seem to have an effect on the predominance of this behavior. For instance, taxi companies in my current of home town of Norwich do this when the car you ordered is in front of your house. But friends and family in the same town don't seem to make use of this practice to the same extent. Again, I know this simply by trying to make these arrangements myself and observing others' usage of their phones in their interactions. Basically, having an equivalent of 'prozvonit' in English would have been handy on numerous occasions and the shape of interactions in the English-speaking word would probably be different if such a word were available.
    More details on http://dominiklukes.net/notes/cognition/2009/january/nofairinbulgarianuniv.

  77. Amys Welt » Blog Archive » Das LanguageLog versagt nie, mir die Abend-/Nachstunden zu versüßen. said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    [...] No word for integrity? [...]

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