No word for fair?

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Over the years, we've discussed many cross-cultural comparisons based on the "No Word for X" meme. In the most recent LL post on the subject ("No word for integrity?", 12/31/2008), I asserted that

[W]hen 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.

But a recent assertion by Bart Wilson seems more promising — the linguistic part is supported by reference to a chapter in a recent book by an actual (and eminent) linguist, and the socio-cultural part is supported by reference to a large body of empirical research, some of which was done by Wilson himself.

Here's Wilson ("Fair's fair", The Atlantic, 1/25/2009):

For the past 25 years experimental economists–of which I am one–have been infatuated with a pie-splitting problem known as the Ultimatum Game. […] The Ultimatum Game is so popular because it is simple to explain and simple to run, yet its results involve one of the most complex problems of society: what are we saying when we say something is "fair"?

Because the word [fair] is so central to how markets work, I've been engaged in a somewhat dizzying struggle to understand it better, or at least clarify how economists apply it to economic behavior. […] Early in my project I turned to one of my favorite linguists, Anna Wierzbicka of Australia National University, for her insight into the meaning of the word. Luckily for me, when I emailed her she pointed out that she had recently published a whole chapter on this very topic in her book English: Meaning and Culture .

Did you know that fair is one-to-one untranslatable into any other language–that it is distinctly Anglo in origin?

The very next day, James Surowiecki came back with the obvious counter-argument ("Is the idea of fairness universal", The New Yorker, 1/26/2009):

The economist Bart Wilson has an interesting post on one of the more important experiments that behavioral economists have run, the ultimatum game. The core insight that economists have gleaned from ultimatum-game experiments is that people care quite a bit about fairness, and are actually willing to turn down free money if they feel that the amount of money they’re being offered is unfair. Wilson’s post, in turn, is a meditation on what, exactly, we mean “when we say something is ‘fair’.” Starting from the assertion that the word “fair” is apparently untranslatable into any other language, Wilson goes on to argue that if this doesn’t mean that fairness is peculiar to Anglophone cultures, it at least suggests that “the concept of fairness is not necessarily ubiquitous to human cultures.”

Let’s set aside the fact that the definition of “untranslatable” is itself hard to pin down, as are its implications for thinking about human feeling. (English doesn’t have a single word that means the same thing as the German schadenfreude, but no one thinks this means that Americans don’t take pleasure when others fail.) What’s more perplexing about Wilson’s argument is that the ultimatum game has been played in many different countries with similar results.

Yesterday, Bart Wilson tried to argue back ("Is fairness cross-cultural, or not?", 1/27/2009):

It's less interesting to me that people nearly universally offer (and accept) more than $1; the benchmark of a game-theoretic automaton is a low standard. […]

I think there's a lot more value to be gained in observing how mean offers vary by context. After translating the instructions and altering the protocols to fit different cultural settings around the world, we observe that mean offers vary from 48% to 26% of the pie. We may all have a sense of fairness, but our sense of what is fair varies pretty dramatically.

As I mention we can also change the experimental protocols for participants right here in the US and observe nearly the same variance, 44% to 28%. The interesting question is, how do people come agree on the tacit social rules for a particular context?

Well, another interesting question would be, is there really any evidence to support the view that differences between languages (as opposed to other cultural differences, or more simply, differences in the way the game is set up) actually affect how people play this game? And then there's the more difficult question of whether the existence of a word "one-for-one translatable" as "fair" makes a critical difference. So far, I haven't seen any evidence for a believable effect of language at all — but perhaps it's out there. We know that linguistic priming can make a moderately large difference in the behavior of bilinguals on certain sorts of psychological tests — roughly half a standard deviation, in some well-designed and controlled experiments. Is this true of the Ultimatum Game? If it is, how much of the effect can be predicted by the distribution of senses among words whose meanings are in the general area of equitable, just, fair, etc.?

Pending an examination of the literature on this point, I'll turn to a couple of more mundane issues that came up in Wilson's original essay. One is peripheral, but easy to test:

If you're anything like most Americans, you probably hear or speak that word many times a day. "It's not fair!" screams the petulant child. "That's a fair price," claims the smooth salesman. "I'm trying to be fair," sighs your boss.

I wondered whether Wilson's estimate of "many times a day" is accurate, so I took a quick look at some corpus frequencies:

Source fair count Total corpus size 1 "fair" in __ words
LDC English CTS 1,804 26,151,602 14,496
LDC English News 190,063 2,559,992,056 13,469
Brown corpus 87 1,034,478 11,891
BNC 8,972 100,000,000 11,146
COCA 30,236 100,000,000 12,733
Time Magazine 1923-2006 9,632 100,000,000 10,382

These estimates — from conversational transcripts and from various kinds of written texts — all agree that a word spelled fair comes up about once in 10,000-15,000 words. Some of these are other uses (like "World's Fair" and "fair complexion" and "a fair amount of trouble" and "fair to poor"), and perusing a sample of the LDC conversational transcripts suggests that these amount to about a quarter of the total (24 out of a random sample of a 100, to be precise). Applying this correction, we'd get roughly one Wilson-relevant fair per 15,000-20,000 words

At a typical average apeaking rate of 150 words per minute, one fair in 15,000 words would be one fair per 100 minutes of talk. Given three to four hours of conversation time per day (180 to 240 minutes), which seems to be about average (though the distribution has a lot of variance), this would be around 2 uses of fair per day. Putting it all together, it seems more accurate to say that "if you're like most Americans, you probably hear or speak that word a couple of times a day". (Depending on how much and how fast you read, you'd get a few more by eye as well as by ear).

The other concrete issue is  Wilson's claim about the lexicographical (and socio-cultural) history:

Did you know that fair is […] distinctly Anglo in origin? And a relatively new word at that? (Late 18th century, actually–the industrial revolution apparently also vastly enhanced our capacity to complain.)

The evidence for this historical claim seems weak to me. (And as stated, I think it's at least partly false.) Wilson got it (I think) from chapter 5, "Being FAIR: Another Key Anglo Value and Its Cultural Underpinnings", in Anna Wierzbicka's book English: Meaning and Culture. Wierzbicka's argument is more subtle than Wilson's (in part simply because it's longer), but I'm still not sure that it's really true. And it's clear that Wilson's summary gets some of the facts wrong.

Wierzbicka analyzes the OED's citations for forms of fair and unfair going back to the 9th century, and argues that "the familiar twentieth-century sense of unfair (as, for example, in unfair competition) emerged and spread widely only in the nineteenth century", with the earlier uses that seem similar being in fact a vaguer and more general word of condemnation. This seems to be true, but her argument about fair struck me as much less convincing.

In the OED's entry for fair, the closest thing seems to be sense 4:

Equitably, honestly, impartially, justly; according to rule. Also in phr. FAIR AND SQUARE.

This seems rather close to the sense that Wilson wants, and citations for it go back to 1300:

c1300 Havelok 224 Al was youen, faire and wel.
1603 SHAKES. Meas. for M. III. i. 141 Heauen shield my Mother plaid my Father faire.
1680 OTWAY Orphan II. vii, I can never think you meant me fair.

The entry also cites "fair-dealing" back to 1711:

1711 SHAFTESBURY Charac. (1737) I. 63 There is as much difference between one sort and another, as between fair-dealing and hypocrisy.
1718 Freethinker No. 14. 96 A fair-dealing, honourable Merchant.

Wierzbicka writes that

The earliest examples that sound "modern" in their use of fair are those with the phrase fair play, attested from the end of the sixteenth century onward. In fact, however, even the phrase fair play is misleading as putative evidence for a pre-eighteenth-century emergence of the modern concept of 'fairness': fair play had its opposite in foul play, not in unfair play, whereas fair competition has its opposite in unfair competition. […]

In fact, one can speculate that the notion of 'fair play' as a whole played a significant role in the emergence of the new concept of 'fair': in fair play, the notion of, roughly speaking, rules was part of the meaning of the word play, whereas in fair competition (and other comparable modern collocations), it became part of the meaning of fair itself. To put it differently, the notion of 'fair play' appears to have become absorbed, as it were, in the meaning of 'fair' itself; the meaning of fair, as applied to all types of human interaction, appears to have been built on the model of 'fair play'.

This strikes me as a plausible line of reasoning, but I wonder whether it's entirely true.

In the first place, the relevant sense of "fair play" seems to start about a hundred years earlier than the OED citations than Wierzbicka relies on. A bit of search on LION turns up e.g. Robert Henryson (1430-1506). "The Taill of the Wolf and the Wedder":

2560 'Is this your bourding in ernist than?' (quod he),
2561 'For I am verray effeirit, and on flocht;
2562 Cum bak agane and I sall let yow se.'
2563 Than quhar the gait wes grimmit he him brocht.
2564 'Quhether call ye this fair play, or nocht?
2565 To set your Maister in sa fell effray,
2566 Quhill he ffor feiritnes hes fylit up the way.

Or John Skelton (1460-1529) "The auncient acquaintance, madam, betwen vs twayn":

41 Play fayre play, madame, and loke ye play clene,
42 Or ells with gret shame your game wylbe sene.

Or Anon, 1100-1500, "Robin Hood and the Shepherd" (apparently in modernized spelling):

55 'Arise, arise, thou proud fellow,
56 And thou shalt have fair play,
57 If thou wilt yield, before thou go,
58 That I have won the day.'

Not only are these examples earlier than Wierzbicka's "end of the sixteenth century" — and certainly well before the "late eighteenth century" and "industrial revolution" times periods that Wilson cites — but they're all figurative, applying the notion of "fair play" outside of a literal game-playing context. And whether or not the word fair was used before 1500 in this sense, outside of its collocation with play, Wilson's concept of fairness-with-respect-to-social-norms is clearly present.

I'd be surprised, furthermore, not to find things from the same period in French or Italian or Dutch expressing similar sentiments.

It's also not clear that Tudor and Elizabethan authors would have paired "fair play" with "foul play" as opposed to "unfair play" — even in other uses, Shakespeare was happy to pair "fair" with "unfair" (as in Sonnet 5 "And that vnfaire which fairely doth excell") as well as with "foul"  (as in Sonnet 137 "To put faire truth vpon so foule a face").

Wiezbicka's general argument about changes in political culture may be right:

"Fair play" as a model of human interaction highlights the "procedural" character of the ethics of fairness. Arguably, the emergence of the concept of "fairness" reflects a shift away from absolute morality to "procedural (and contractual) morality," and from the gradual shift from "just" to "fair" can be seen as parallel to the shifts from good to right and also from wise (and also true) to reasonable: in all cases, there is a shift from an absolute, substantive approach to a procedural one.

But it would be nice to find a way to make the linguistic arguments — whether about changes across time or across space — in a more testable form.

As George Wither (1588-1667) put it:

VVith these Cards , I, an After-game have play'd,
But, there's one Card , by shuffling, so mislaid,
That, now my fore-game's lost; yet, if I may
Just Dealing find, Fair Gamsters , and Fair-play ,
What ever happens, I no question make
But, I at last, may thereby save my stake ;
And, when the Sett is ended, win much more
Then ere I got by Play , or Work before.

To play the winning linguistic card in a fair game of social science, it seems to me, we need a better way to track usage across time and space in a quantitative way.


  1. David Ekstrand said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    Well, there is something to be said for the idea that not every language has a word which corresponds one-to-one with the English word "fairness". As anyone who has studied political philosophy (and many others) knows, John Rawls, in his extremely influential "A Theory of Justice" presents a theory of "justice as fairness". How do you translate that into other languages? The German version seems to have been "Gerechtigkeit als Fairness". In Swedish, a child who in English would cry "That's not fair!" would probably exclaim "Det är inte rättvist!" But "rättvisa" simply means "justice"… So when translating "justice as fairness", you must choose a different term, and Swedish is more resistant than German to wholesale borrowings. In an early translation of one of Rawls's articles we see "rättvisa som rent spel" which backtranslates as "justice as clean [i.e. fair] play", but the problem with that is that it is somewhat idiomatic, so there is no translation of the adjective "fair". In the Swedish translation of "A Theory of Justice", translator Annika Persson discusses these problems and notes that Swedish once had a corresponding word for fairness, "billighet", but this meaning of the word is now obsolescent and "billig" means "cheap" in everyday parlance. So she settles for "rättvisa som skälighet", "justice as reasonableness" (as in "a reasonable price"), which is probably the best option but hardly great.

    The point? Of course the idea of "fair play" is well-established in countries like Sweden and Germany, both of whom also tend to do quite well at these game experiments. But distinguishing the words for justice and fairness may well be quite peculiar to the Anglos.

  2. Mattias Östergren said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:12 am

    I have one word to say: Rättvist.
    Oh, wait, I have another one: Gerecht.

    [(myl) Indeed. But in his original essay, Wilson has tried to get ahead of you on this:

    German speakers might note that they frequently also use the word gerecht in addition to fair; French speakers might say that they have not one but two words for it: juste and équitable. True enough. However, depending upon context, gerecht is also translatable into English as just or equitable. That's a three-to-one translation, not one-to-one, and probably one reason why the Germans directly import the English word. And while équitable is often translated as "fair", it can also be rendered as equitable, and similarly, juste can be translated into English as just. These languages may have the sense of fairness, but we have a word for it that they do not.

    I don't find this line of argument very convincing. In general, that's because it's not clear that polysemy (or greater or lesser specificity) of a language's words in some conceptual space has the strong relationship to thought and culture that the argument presupposes it should. In this specific case, moreover, English fair is also polysemous (meaning "considerable" in phrases like "a fair amount" or "a fair number", and "moderate" in phrases like "fair-sized", and "of slightly below average quality" in contexts like "fair to poor", and so on). Does this mean that we anglophones are also handicapped in our appreciation of fairness, tending to confuse it with medium-sized portions of questionable quality?

    But in fairness to Wilson, he's all over gerecht, and he's tried to frame his argument (the whole "one to one" deal) specifically to allow for it. Given that a Swedish-English dictionary gives "just, fair, equitable" as the English translations of rättvist, his arguments (whatever their quality) would apply there as well.]

  3. Chris said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    I think Wiezbicka's general argument is bogus. Someone who offers one dollar in the Ultimatum Game is being perfectly procedurally fair – his offer is according to the rules of the game as established by the experimenters and as understood by both players.

    What that offer is not is *substantively* fair, and that's why people reject it. Substantive fairness is very much not dead (even if people still have a lot of difficulty agreeing on some of the corner cases) and procedures that disserve it lose legitimacy as a result.

    What I think there *is* is a recognition that subjective standards vary, and in order to live together in a peaceful society we have to be willing to compromise and agree on rules. But the rules are only agreed on if a sufficient number of people think they produce just, good and wise results.

    [(myl) In fairness to Wierzbicka, she has nothing to say one way or the other about the Ultimatum Game — she's making an argument about the usage of a set of words over time ("fair", "unfair", "reasonable", etc.) and the relationship to the historical development of some ideas in politics and political economy. ]

  4. Oskar said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Mattias, I was just about to post about "rättvis" :) I'm glad to see some Swedes representing.

    Just for fun I looked up "rättvis" in the online version of the as-of-yet unfinished Swedish Academy Word Book (our equivalent to the OED). The word is apparently related to the English word "righteous" through the Old English word "rihtwīs".

    The etymology given is from the two roots "rätt" and "vis", meaning "correct" or "just" and "wisdom", respectively. That is, someone who is rättvis is someone with the wisdom to know what is right. In modern Swedish, however, it means exactly the same thing as "fair", it really is one-to-one. Well, not quite, "rättvis" doesn't also mean beautiful, but I think that's beside the point.

  5. Mark P said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    Aren't we talking about two different issues? One is whether "fair" is English only, and one is whether the presence of such a word has something to do with whether people have a concept of fairness (and therefore may not play fair or expect fairness?). In the case of the latter, I think there is some research that might be relevant. In it the subjects behaved as if they had a concept of fairness, despite not having a word for "fair." In fact, since they were monkeys, they did not have any words at all. (

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    @Mark P: Wierzbicka's argument is consistent with the view that all social mammals (say) have some concept of fairness, but the exact interpretation of this concept, its cultural prominence, and (especially) its role in the economic aspects of human societies have varied significantly over space and time.

  7. möngke said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    'fair' (in the meaning that is being discussed here) = pošten in Slovenian (and probably other South Slavic languages as well). Pretty much one-to-one correspondence here – I can't think of any more appropriate English word to translate the Slovene, or vice versa, with Slovene as my native language and near-native knowledge of English. Also, 'just' = pravičen, so even the polysemic correspondence argument kind of breaks down once your gaze happens to fall on the far side of the Alps.

    Funnily enough, fer exists as a recent ('slang', our linguists would say) loanword in Slovenian, meaning, well, fair. I have seen kids, including myself when I was younger, shout To ni fer! countless times. It is used in practically any context that one would say 'That's not fair!' in English. Make of that what you will. I would argue that the word is being used in lieu of pošteno because it is a) shorter and b) doesn't sound archaic/flowery/contrived, much in the same way as no sane Slovene person would say Ljubim te for 'I love you' colloquially. In any case, the concept obviously preceded the borrowing.

  8. goofy said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    I wonder if there really are words that are "one-to-one translatable" into any other language.

  9. Victoria Martin said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    A tiny quibble about one of the examples (although I entirely agree with the general thrust of the argument): in Sonnet 5 ("And that vnfaire which fairely doth excell") "unfaire" is a verb, meaning roughly "to de-beautify", and therefore can't really be used to argue the exitence of the adjective "unfair".

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    Oskar: In modern Swedish … [rättvis] means exactly the same thing as "fair", it really is one-to-one.

    David Ekstand: John Rawls … presents a theory of "justice as fairness". How do you translate that into other languages? The German version seems to have been "Gerechtigkeit als Fairness". In Swedish… "rättvisa" simply means "justice"… So when translating "justice as fairness", you must choose a different term … In an early translation of one of Rawls's articles we see "rättvisa som rent spel" which backtranslates as "justice as clean [i.e. fair] play" …. In the Swedish translation of "A Theory of Justice", translator Annika Persson discusses these problems and … settles for "rättvisa som skälighet", "justice as reasonableness" (as in "a reasonable price"), which is probably the best option but hardly great.

    If Oskar is right, then Persson's translation of "Justice as Fairness" would backtranslate not as "Justice as Reasonableness" but as "Fairness as Reasonableness", which would seem to miss Rawls' point entirely. All this points to the reasonableness of Wierzbicka's perspective, which is that

    [E]veryday English words like right and wrong, facts, evidence, reasonable, fair, exactly, precisely, and really (among many others) are important instances of words that are "used automatically" and yet contain "a wealth of history" and pass on a great deal of cultural heritage. […] By analyzing such "invisible" words, their history, and their current use, I will try to show from a linguistic point of view the extent to which … "cultural knowledge constitutes a shared social space", handed down through, and embedded in, the English language itself.

    Some of the analyses might be wrong in detail, and the strength of the relation to thought and culture is open to argument, but the scholarship is serious and so are the ideas.

  11. outeast said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    some concept of fairness, but the exact interpretation of this concept, its cultural prominence, and (especially) its role in the economic aspects of human societies have varied significantly over space and time.

    If that's the extent of the claim it seems a bit, well, trivial.

    [(myl) Stated at an abstract level, even the most consequential claims can seem trivial: "substances found in the environment can cause disease", say — this becomes non-trivial only when cashed out in terms of non-trivial details.

    But how did I get myself in the position of defending a bunch of neo-Whorfians, anyhow?]

  12. Follow-ups (follows-up?) « Glossographia said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    […] at Language Log, Mark Liberman, in 'No word for fair?', discusses whether the words fair and unfair are translatable to languages other than English, and […]

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    To claim that fair is one-to-one untranslateable seems a stupid statement, as stupid as the suggestion that the equation of equitability with a light skin in the word fair is a clear example of racist bias and 'white man's justice'.

    The statement it's not fair is translated exactly into Spanish by no és justo. The Spanish is probably heard a couple of times a day (and more by those who deal with young children, particularly the parents of siblings).

    [(myl) This is true, but perhaps not relevant — see the above discussion of rättvist and gerecht, and especially the problems of translating Rawls. (In Spanish, I guess "Justice as Fairness" comes out as "La justicia como equidad", not "La justicia como justicia", suggesting what the problem is. The fact that "fair play" is "juego limpio" underlines the lack of one-to-one correspondence.)

    In the past, we've discussed (and ridiculed) claims about "no word for sex" and "no word for when" and "no word for accountability" and so on. These were naive and often ill-informed claims, made as rhetorical gestures by people who had not thought very hard about the facts and ideas involved. Anna Wierzbicka's book is a different matter — she's a linguistically sophisticated polyglot, who has looked carefully into the history and thought carefully about what it means. That doesn't mean that her facts and interpretations are all correct, but they can't be dismissed so cavalierly.

    I'm afraid that Wilson presents a sort of stick-figure version of her argument in his essay (along with getting some dates and so on wrong); and Suriowiecki's third-hand version is much worse ("the word 'fair' is apparently untranslatable into any other language").]

  14. linda seebach said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    To Mark P:
    The current e-newsletter for Skeptic magazine
    has an extended review of the experiments with apes and monkeys using the Ultimatum game to explore whether they have a concept of "fair" and what it is. Mostly, they don't, but if they had a word it would vary across species.

  15. Nathan said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    @goofy: I suspect there really are "one-to-one translatable" words, but they may be hard to find. The first idea that popped into my head was hippopotamus, but then I considered the possibility that some West African language could have two different words for the two species (I have no idea if this is true). It's well known that such basic words as kinship and color terms merge and divide categories in different ways cross-linguistically. Proper nouns and registered trademarks probably don't really count.

    Hmmm…maybe my suspicion is wrong. The whole idea is rather silly, anyway, unless you're desperate to believe in the flawed Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

  16. John Cowan said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    [W]hen 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.

    "Those Russians! So vague, so indefinite — why, they don't even have a word for the!"

  17. Gunnar said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    English speakers don't understand the concept "døgn", used in Scandinavian languages, because their language lacks a direct translation of the word. They can say "a day and a night" or "24 hours", but to them there is no qualitative difference between 23 hours and 24 hours, only a difference in quantity.

  18. Ryan said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    They don't have a word for a either. Maybe they're just too definite? Or maybe it compounds the vagueness…

  19. anonymous said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Seeing how many people have counterarguments to "no word for fair", I really want to locate a copy of Wierzbicka now. In the only other language I know, the triad "fair, equitable, just" immediately evokes "公平, 平等, 正義" in my mind, and at least the first of these terms did not gain its modern usage recently — 貞觀政要 which appears to be from the Tang Dynasty contains a chapter all about fairness (卷五公平第十六).

    I'm guessing Wilson stripped something very important from Wierzbicka's argument and unfortunately his butchered version is the one populating the Anglo-American blogosphere. And we wonder why different races don't get along. (Just kidding.)

  20. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    A tiny nit to pick with Oskar — the "vis" in "rättvis" is "wise" (as in "clockwise," "otherwise") rather than "wisdom".

    In the Brockhaus German dictionary the entry for "fair" is "eingedeutscht: anständig, ritterlich, unparteiisch". "Fair play" is "ehrliches Spiel," "honorable play". ("Eingedeutscht," of course, is "Germanized" and needs no introduction to this company.)

    I'd want to translate "ritterlich" as "chivalrous" or "gallant". Not quite what we Anglos mean by "fair". "Anständig" goes back to MHG "Anstand","truce".

    I recently read a paper about dogs showing a sense of fairness, which tells me that the idea lies so deep in the mammalian brain that no word is needed to experience the feeling.

  21. goofy said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    @Gunnar: I find it very hard to believe that English speakers don't understand the concept "24-hour period".

  22. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    That is especially interesting given that, not so long ago I argued that "justice" and "fairness" were the same thing (there was a discussion about whether Cree had a word for "justice"), except that one had to be made within the trappings of law. The judge's job is not to be "just", it is to be "fair" with regard to the specific limits put in place by the law.

    An interesting point is that the exact French complement to the childish "it's not fair!" is "c'est pas juste!". Someone pointed out the word "équitable", which nowadays tend to get restricted to the sphere of fair trade (even though it would do as a fine translation of "fair" in many cases, it is unfortunately a bit too formal).

  23. peter said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    If the usage of the word "fair" to mean "a roughly equal allocation of resources" is somehow related to industrialization (as Wilson seems to claim), then surely the language he should be examining first is not English, but Dutch, since the industrial revolution began in The Netherlands. In any case, his claim of a link between industrialization and a word for the concept of just allocation being found in a language should be eminently testable empirically, since so many non-English-speaking countries have now industrialized. Did Japanese, for example, only have a word for this concept after 1868?

    The Ultimatum Game experiments are very revealing of the methodology of mainstream (aka autistic) economics, which is as follows:

    1. Articulate a theoretical model of human decision-making.
    2. Conduct experiments with human subjects to confirm model.
    3. When experimental results fail to confirm model, accuse human subjects of acting irrationally. Of course, it may be necessary to define "rationality" in a very specific, even perverse, way for this to succeed.
    4. Continue to teach and publish the theoretical model articulated in Step 1.

    Of the sciences, I think astrology is the only other one using a similar methodology.

  24. Adrian said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    It is natural to expect that word-to-word translation is possible, but experience teaches one that it rarely is. I tend to believe this lack of equivalence is a result of chance factors rather than some Sapir-Whorfian process (or its converse).

    When a Hungarian child describes another child as "szemét" he may be using a word that translates _primarily_ as "trash" but he is nonetheless communicating perfectly understandably _in that context_ that he thinks the other child is being "unfair". Of course it's handy to have an everyday word with that specific meaning (Hungarian – like other languages – does have hifalutin words that mean "fair"), and several languages have adopted our word.

  25. Nick Lamb said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    This word “døgn” seems ill-defined to me. A 24-hour period? From midnight to midnight? Which midnight? Einstein gifted us a return to the age before steam – time is knowable only locally, any attempt at national or international unification of time is at best an approximation of the unknowable. The specified 24-hour period makes it seem like a monotonic time is meant, something like the TAI, time seen as a continually ticking clock, the kind of time a wristwatch measures. But on the other hand midnight is a concept closely tied to the Earth's rotation, like a sundial, ever-changing and unpredictable. Surely, the Scandinavians cannot be such vague and non-specific people that they don't care about the difference, which might add up to several seconds per decade, and can only increase over time?

    (all above written with tongue firmly in cheek)

    More practically, I do not want to be thrown off a train half an hour from my destination just because I took the 2305 and it doesn't arrive home until 0030. Nor do I wish to buy two tickets. When it comes to the definition of a day, I'm with Humpty Dumpty.

  26. Mossy said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    If you work as a translator, you spend your entire day on “untranslatable words.” It’s not that you can’t translate them. You don’t leave them out. But it means there isn’t an equivalent or near equivalent, and you either have to explain, or describe, or add, or sometimes subtract (when the word has several meanings/associations and you have to chose one of them).
    Fair/fairness is one of those words when translating into Russian. Translators had a miserable time with that bit in Obama’s speech (“fair play”) – they translated it as either “justice” or something like “honest play/game.” Russian teachers of translation spend entire classes on the concept of “fairness.”

    I think of “fairness” as a kind of bubble that includes justice, consideration for others, following the rules, equitable distribution of something, and something I can’t put my finger on that is connected with socially appropriate behavior. In Russian there isn’t one word bubble that contains all of that, so you have to choose a part of the bubble. When I see plane passengers filling up every overhead compartment with 10 times more hand luggage than they are allowed to bring on the plane, I say “That’s not fair!” A Russian might say, “That’s not polite,” or “That’s a violation of the rules,” or “That’s not good.”

    And of course I should note that Russian society has never been what I would call “fair.”

    BTW, another word that is “impossible to translate into Russian”: whistle blower. The closest thing is a stoolie or a snitch. There isn’t one word that conveys the positive notion of someone “blowing the whistle on an injustice/crime/wrong.” You have to call someone like that a “fighter for X (rights of workers, justice, etc.) and then add something about how they exposed the injustice, criminal act, etc.

  27. Amy said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    I remember a point about cross-cultural communications that concerned the term for "fair" in Confucian-influenced cultures. The illustrative anecdote went something like this (forgive me if I misremember any of the details):

    In an American high school class, a Japanese exchange student raises her hand and asks permission to refer to her Japanese-English dictionary during the essay portion of her exam. The teacher refuses to allow it. Her classmates protest, saying "That's not fair!"

    In a Japanese secondary school class, an American exchange student raises his hand and asks permission to refer to his English-Japanese dictionary during the essay portion of his exam. The teacher refuses to allow it. His classmates protest, saying, "But he's so 'kawaiso'!"
    The term 'kawaiso' was interpreted as 'pitiable'. This implies that the Japanese students bargained with the teacher from a position of subservience, appealing to the authority figure's generosity to take pity on an underling. In contrast, by using the term 'fair' the American students bargained with the teacher from a position of equality, appealing to the teacher's conscience and making her feel guilty for putting the foreign student at a disadvantage compared to her classmates.

    In practical terms, 'fair' and 'kawaiso' serve the same purpose in their respective languages and situations. Culturally, however, they are worlds apart. So when non-English speakers say "of course we have a word for fair!" they may be right in practical application, but does their word for 'fair' really translate the same concept?

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Heard only yesterday:

    The trouble with the French is that they don't even have a word for "entrepreneur"

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    In French, loyal is a pretty good translation of 'fair' in the context of competition (sports or business); in fact, the Petit Larousse defines fair-play as comportement loyal. This use has carried over to other Romance languages, so that 'unfair competition' is competencia desleal in Spanish, concorrenza sleale in Italian, and so on. But because in Spanish leal also has the English meaning of 'loyal', Mexicans use parejo as a more exact equivalent of the English 'fair'.
    All this has to do with this particular meaning of the very polysemous 'fair'. Fair weather (beau temps), fair hair (cheveux blonds), a fair price (prix correct) etc. are another matter altogether.

  30. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    To David Eddyshaw: the claim that the French don't have a word for 'entrepeneur' has been widely attributed to George W. Bush, but that attribution has been discredited, here.

  31. Mark P said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    To Linda Seebach: I think the Skeptic interpretation is consistent with my interpretation, which is that even monkeys want to be treated "fairly." But, of course, neither monkeys nor chimps have a word for "fair."

  32. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw: The Presidential "X no word for Y" term I first heard was in relation to Ronald Reagan, in a quote here attributed to Martin Amis: "Gorbachev had yet to show his hand, and it was hereabouts that Reagan accused the Russian language of having no word for détente."

  33. Michael said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    Modern Hebrew has a one-to-one equivalent of fair: "hogen".

  34. Mark F. said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    Believing in the "no word for X" meme does not imply believing in Sapir-Whorf. That is, you may think that it tells us a lot about Venusians to know that they have no word for "lie", without thinking that the absence of the word prevents them for lying. At least as likely, the absence of exposure to lying prevented them from having a word for it, but either way it would say something about the culture. (The literary source of my example, however, did buy into the Sapir-Whorf interpretation.)

  35. mae said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    On the news yesterday, I heard a report about an exceptional snowfall in some desert country (Dubai?) where the back-country natives don't have a word for snow.

  36. Mark F. said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    Following up my own comment — Or maybe it wouldn't say something about the culture. I'm not willing to stand by that, although I do think it would raise interesting questions for further investigation. The point I wanted to make is that you could think it said something about the culture using a different line of reasoning than Sapir-Whorf.

  37. Canou said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    gerecht is cannot be used to say "to be right" in German. One would say richtig.

  38. Jonathan said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    For what it's worth, Whorf grouped all modern European languages in a single category, (SAE?) which he then contrasted to Hopi. He would have seen differences between English and French or German and Spanish as fairly insignificant. It is clear to me that there is a single semantic field of justness/fairness/equitableness that different European languages divide up in slightly different ways, but that all these concepts exist in all of them. The problem of the translator is to negotiate the differences in the ways in which the semantic pie is to be divided "fairly" among different words and concepts. The problem maybe is not Whorfianism but nominalism: without a word, that exact word corresponding to that exact slice of the semantic pie, you can't have that exact thing.

  39. Bob Ladd said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    This thread is focused on the English word fair and the concept that underlies it, but for readers who are interested it's probably worth pointing out that Anna Wierzbicka has written extensively on the general topic of how words don't mean quite the same thing from one culture to another (e.g. her book Emotions across Languages and Cultures). Her basic starting point (and recurring theme) is a general skepticism about the idea of universal concepts. Like Mark, I'm a little uncomfortable defending a bunch of neo-Whorfians, but like Mark, I agree that Wierzbicka's work is serious scholarship, and it's written in a fairly approachable style. If you want to read more on this you might also try Umberto Eco's book Mouse or Rat?.

  40. Troy S. said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    It's an interesting semantic question what the difference between justice and fairness even is. After some thought, I've concluded the best illustration I can think of is the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. (Math 20:1-15)
    I won't restate it here, but the employer seems to pay his wages justly rather than fairly. It's interesting that human instinct seems to prefer fairness over justice. I'd bet sure that instinct plays a large part in the results of your average Ultimatum game. From the standpoint of justice, neither player deserves any money, so it's best to take what you're offered, but it hardly ever seems to play out that way. Incidentally, this is why "Deal or No Deal" is so frustrating to watch (or interesting. Your mileage may vary.)

  41. Nathan Myers said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    Three remarks:

    1. I read recently of experiments in which dogs demonstrated an awareness of, and insistence on, fairness. If dogs understand fairness, it must be a pretty basic social concept.

    2. I gather that many languages (perhaps by design, more or less?) don't admit the possibility of two interlocutors of equal status. I would expect such a language to have problems expressing fairness as we (and dogs) understand it.

    3. When business people say (as they seem to do about every five minutes, lately) "It is what it is", I always respond, "Fair is fair!". This gets quizzical looks, but I hear the former expression less frequently, a development I put down to operant conditioning.

  42. Nathan Myers said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    (Re point 1, somehow I missed seeing Dan Lufkin's prior posting. Sorry, Dan.)

  43. D.O. said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    Let a Russian speaker enter the fray. In terms of social context, contemporary as well as historical, is probably as far as you can get from England and still remain in Europe. Russian does not really have two different words meaning "law" and "justice", but in the context of discussion, that is "by the book" let's take "law" (zakon) or "rules" (pravila). But Russian has a perfect translation for "fair" — spravedlivyj. Hey, we have even another word for that — chestnyj (like in fair play, another meaning "honest"). The difference is approximately "spravedlivyj" — fair by outcome, "chestnyj" — fair by rules (e.g., of the game). Are we even better than Anglo?
    More interesting, there is a famous Russian saying "Would you be liked to be judged by law or by "fairness"?". (Used normally to emphasize that the two are not the same).

  44. Mark P said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    Mossy, about "whistleblower." I don't think it's too surprising that Russian would not have a direct translation. I originally thought it might have come from games like football, where a referee blows a whistle to indicate action not allowed in the game. A couple of online sources attribute it to the whistle blowing of English policemen when they saw a crime. I have no idea where it came from, but either origin would seem to be foreign to Russian.

  45. Tim said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    Mark P : I'm not sure that that's the point. It's a question of whether they have a term meaning "someone who is privy to an injustice and exposes it". It doesn't matter whether the term also has a literal meaning of "someone who exhales into a device to create a shrill noise".

  46. Greg said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    @Amy, I'm glad you brought up the fair/kawaisou story. But if you think about it, how is it unfair that the Japanese exchange student doesn't get to use a dictionary? No one else gets to use one, right? As for the American exchange student, it is kind of indisputable that they are kawaisou. I suppose my point is that translating "fair" into another language may be difficult because it means different things to different people, even in English: (1) everyone gets an equal slice; (2) to each according to their need; (3) to each, all and only what they have earned; etc. My "fair" is different from the next guy's. By the way, I think it's totally unfair if the Japanese exchange student doesn't get to use their dictionary… I was just using it as an example.

  47. Dan said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 10:57 pm


    Bart Wilson is an experimental economist, not necessarily a mainstream, "autistic" economist. In fact, the very experiment he discusses in his article is proof positive that people aren't perfectly rational. There's no modeling, no rationalizing to explain away this result. He researches how institutions (and cultural context) influence economic outcomes. In particular, he looks at which types of markets lead to the most efficient outcomes.

    But I think the second half of your post was more about trashing economics than seeking truth. Prove me wrong and look into some experimental economics.

  48. RKM said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

    @Tim: осведомитель ? It is more like "informer" literally (from the verb "to inform") but is used for whistleblowers.

  49. dr pepper said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    @Mark F. said,

    Believing in the "no word for X" meme does not imply believing in Sapir-Whorf. That is, you may think that it tells us a lot about Venusians to know that they have no word for "lie", without thinking that the absence of the word prevents them for lying.

    "saying the thing which is not: — Swift.

  50. dr pepper said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    Also, if it were english that had no word for "fair", one could easily get the idea across to britishers that something was, or was not, "cricket". Or "sporting".

    In the US we have "straight shooting". I'm sure every culture has some comprable concept.

  51. dr pepper said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    @Mark P said,

    Mossy, about "whistleblower." I don't think it's too surprising that Russian would not have a direct translation. I originally thought it might have come from games like football, where a referee blows a whistle to indicate action not allowed in the game. A couple of online sources attribute it to the whistle blowing of English policemen when they saw a crime. I have no idea where it came from, but either origin would seem to be foreign to Russian.

    I remember back in the 80's a group of american peace activists went to a protest meeting in the Soviet Union. The moderator introduced them as "american dissidents".

  52. Mossy said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    @a number of posters.
    It isn’t that you can’t come up with a way to translate fairness or whistleblower into Russian. But you have to either add some description or use specification, i.e., translate one part of the concept (like justice or honesty, or in the case of whistleblower — informer). And it isn’t that human beings can’t understand and incorporate concepts/words/behavior that they’ve never encountered before. It’s that “fairness” encompasses a number of concepts in one word, and there isn’t just one word in Russian that contains all — or even many — of them. What Wierzbicka does, it seems to me, is to show that there aren’t universal concepts, but also how to tease out the specific meaning of a word/concept and make it comprehensible to people in different languages/cultures.

    I think that the “proof” offered in the game isn’t really proof. If people turn down a small amount of money, it isn’t necessarily because they think it isn’t “fair.” It might be that they find it “unjust” or “wrong” or “against the rules” or “a bad deal.” English-speakers see that and think, “Well, that means they think it isn’t fair.” But you’d have to get their explanations and see if they added up to the English notion of “fairness.”

    If you live in another culture and speak another language, after awhile – like about four days – you see that there is a connection between language and culture and human behavior, and that after a longer period of time – like about four years – you find your own thinking, behavior, and perception changed. But for me, how that happens is unclear.

  53. David Ekstrand said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 3:57 am

    @Mark L re the Swedish translation: one might put it this way: "rättvisa" means both "justice" and "fairness". Being a work of political philosophy, it is fairly clear to the reader that it is (economic) justice which is meant by the word which is translated as "rättvisa", not "fairness". So that particular choice of word isn't problematic: Swedish political discourse uses "rättvisa" for (almost) all instances where English tends to use "justice", and it might well be regarded as in some sense the primary sense of the word, which must then be distinguished from the secondary sense, namely "fairness", by use of another word.

  54. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 6:21 am

    @ D.O. there is a famous Russian saying "Would you be liked to be judged by law or by "fairness"?".

    I'm sure those of us who know Russian (though perhaps not perfectly!) would like to see this saying here in Russian.

  55. Chris said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    Wierzbicka's argument is consistent with the view that all social mammals (say) have some concept of fairness, but the exact interpretation of this concept, its cultural prominence, and (especially) its role in the economic aspects of human societies have varied significantly over space and time.

    That's what I was trying (somewhat unclearly, apparently) to argue against in my previous comment. Whether Wierzbicka discusses it or not, Ultimatum Game players – in modern societies with constitutions and law courts – still respond to substantive fairness, not procedural, in exactly the way Wierzbicka seems to be arguing they won't.

    IOW, cultural prominence or no cultural prominence, we're still the same kind of monkey.

    P.S. The bastard history of English leads to its having a multiplicity of words for lots of things – Latin roots like just and equitable piled on top of Germanic roots like fair and right. That says more about the history of English than it does about the psychology of people in any culture, English-speaking or not, IMO. It also makes it a bad basis for comparisons about what language has how many words for which concepts.

  56. Mark P said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    The existence of a one-to-one translation into Russian, for example, doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a one-to-one translation of the concept. Just as with schadenfreude, there is no English word but there is certainly an English concept. Likewise with "whistleblower"; there is no reason Russian should have such a word unless there were either referees or bobbies that blew whistles. That doesn't mean Russians don't have a concept of whistle blowing in the metaphorical sense (@Tim – I was speaking of the origin of the term "whistleblower" as it is used in its metaphorical sense, not in its literal sense). If I understand the real issue here, though, the question is whether a concept is shaped in some fashion by a word used to describe that concept. I suspect that must be true at least to a certain extent. For example, if "whistleblower" has to be translated into Russian as "informer" then at least the connotations seem to be different. On the other hand, is "informer" a one-to-one translation of the Russian word?

  57. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    Michael: Modern Hebrew has a one-to-one equivalent of fair: "hogen".
    The way I would translate hogen would be "decent", "suitable" or "proper". There is a fair (!) amount of overlap between these and "fair", but one-to-one?

  58. Aaron Davies said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    apropos of "lie", i'm currently reading a novel (academ's fury, by jim butcher) which features a race (non-human, this is a fantasy novel) which has no word for "lie". the humans generally translate it for them as "intentional mistake".

  59. Aaron Davies said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    @mark, etc., re: "whistleblower": i understood the point to be that russian (language/society) has no concept of a "informing as a social good". (this would seem to go along with the accompanying editorial comment about the inherent unfairness of russian society.)

  60. Mossy said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    Yes, that's it — an informer and all the other words you might use to describe a whistleblower have a negative connotation.

    I was quipping a bit about fairness; I shouldn't have been flip.

    There isn't a one-to-one translation of the word OR concept of fairness. There are words that are part of the English concept of fairness, like justice and honesty.

    I think we have to be careful about what we are talking about. I don't say that you can't express the concept of fairness in Russian, or that Russians would not understand it. But that there isn't one word that is a close equivalent.

    Here's another example. In the USSR, shopping was not a pleasant experience. In Russia, it is much more pleasant, but stores and malls want to make it seem like an attractive endeavor so more people will do it. So now they are simply transliterating "shopping." Shopink at your local shopink-mol is now advertised as a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Shopink is "positioned" as different from what Russian shopping used to be, both in language (one used to say "to walk around to stores") and in concept. Russians seem to get this kind of shopink (judging by the crowds at IKEA). But the word (shopink) and concept (recreational activity that involves buying things) really didn't exist before.

  61. bianca steele said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    I had a vague sense that "juste" in French had different connotations than "just" in English, and that I remembered something from Rousseau's Julie that illustrated the different meaning. A quick Google Book Search turned up the kind of thing I had in mind, but I think "justice" could have been used in the same sentence if the grammar had been rearranged — we use "do yourself justice" to mean something like "be fair to yourself" — not "be exactly as easy or hard on yourself as a judge would be." IIRC the earlier English-language uses of "fair" tend to have a connotation to the effect that "beautiful people should do beautiful things," so it would be interesting to see how the meaning might have shifted.

  62. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    There may possibly be a little juice left in this old lemon — The etymology of "fair" goes easily back to OE "fæger" pretty, nice and clean. There are cognates all over the place. German has a verb "fegen" sweep, clean up, but the best I can do for an English verb is to smooth and adjust the lines of a ship or aircraft.

    It seems to me that the En "fair" denotes an end point, but in Sw "rättvis," Ge "anständig," etc., the underlying idea is the process that leads to an end point.

    The fairest process I've ever seen in action was the distribution of the elk meat by a hunting club in Dalarna, Sweden at the end of the season. It was an elaboration of the "you cut the cake but your sister gets first choice" method and it took all evening and involved much singing and drinking of akvavit. It was a process that had been perfected about 1000 years ago.

  63. Mossy said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    One more thing – I’m writing this as a translator. When someone says “X isn’t translatable” I’m not thinking about the philosophy or theory of translation. I’m thinking of having to come up with a translation of a specific word or phrase. The cover of Time Magazine had a photo of three women and the headline (if I recall), “Time’s People of the Year: The Whistle blowers.” Translators had to figure out how to write a short Russian headline so that Russian readers understood what these women did, and that what they did was perceived as positive. It wasn’t a question of whether the concept of “someone heroically stopping a crime by exposing their boss” could be understood, or experienced, or expressed in Russian. It was a question of deciding what words to put on the page. It’s hard to explain this when you are back-translating, but you couldn’t translate it as: Time’s People of the Year: The Stoolies.

    Sorry to be a blog hog. We translators talk to our computers all day. An opportunity to discuss translation is just so exciting.

  64. Mary Kuhner said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    I recall a French-Canadian roleplaying writer writing about the problem of translating English "spell" as in "cast a magic spell." He had two words similar to English "charm" and "hex" to choose from, and neither seemed to offer the neutrality of "spell". This made writing the more generic part of the rules awkward: it didn't sound right to cast a "healing hex" on your buddy, nor to "charm" a sword to make it sharper.

    Whether this says anything about French-Canadian views on magic I don't know. Sometimes I think language just more or less randomly stitches words and connotations together, and if it doesn't give you exactly what you want, you make do. Translation makes this much more obvious because it's clear that the guy speaking the other language *does* have the right word, and that seems so, well, unfair!

    My favorite word in this context is "train". All the myriad senses of "train" are apparently the same word at root–it meant something like "drag along behind you"–and it's easy to imagine using the word in a way that woke two or three or four of its current meanings, and was more or less impossible to translate without unpacking it into a huge paragraph.

  65. David Marjanović said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    In the Brockhaus German dictionary the entry for "fair" is "eingedeutscht: anständig, ritterlich, unparteiisch".

    That's pretty desperate, though. All of these overlap, but ritterlich isn't in modern use except for actually describing knights or as a deliberate archaicism, unparteiisch translates 1 : 1 as "impartial", and anständig is behavior according to Anstand, the civilized (or at least pre-1968) code of conduct of society, with metaphorical use as… hm… the "good" in Donald Duck's threat to his nephews "I'll beat you up bad, but good", except it usually has positive connotations. No surprise, then, that fair was borrowed. Children complaining "that's not fair" say das ist unfair — with [ʊ] rather than any approximation of [ʌ], so it was probably compounded after borrowing, using the native un-.

    Sure, they could say das ist ungerecht "that's unjust", but stylistically that's way too far off.

    BTW, there's no word or fixed expression in German that could be used to translate "whistleblower" with its positive connotations. Interesting, and probably telling, to learn that the word comes from American Football.

  66. Mark P said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    David M, I originally thought "whistleblower" came from games like American football, but the only sources I found (not many, and apparently referencing Wikipedia) attribute it to the English bobby's blowing of a whistle.

  67. Ultimatum Ruminations | Kill Ten Rats said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    […] Right player. Just because the rules let you do something does not mean that it is fair. Of course, the English word fair is a horrible mess. English speakers mash a dozen concepts into the word and equivocate madly. Does […]

  68. D.O. said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 3:27 am

    First of all, sorry for very sloppy typing in my previous post. I also did not do justice to my native language. It does have a word for "justice". It is "право". Sure, the usage is slightly different, but the core of the concept is covered pretty well.
    @Nigel Greenwood
    that will be "Тебя как судить: по закону или по справедливости?” or
    "Тебя как судить, по закону или по совести?"

  69. RKM said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:48 am

    I spoke to several Russians about this today (I am living and working in Russia). All of them are fluent speakers of English (one of them teaches Russian language to foreign students in a university).

    The general consensus was that Russian has several words to express the concept of "fair" in different contexts. These would be words like честный, справедливый, настоящий etc. to cite just a few.

    On whistleblower, they didn't seem to think that "informer" was wrong or necessarily negative.

    If nothing else, "no term for X" led to some interesting conversations for me. Thanks!

  70. Dictionary-fuelled said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    Since Slavs seem to add comments pretty frequently, let me add $0.02 from the Polish point of view.

    I initially figured out "uczciwy" would fit well ("just" I'd rather translate as "sprawiedliwy"). Then I looked Rawls up and learned that his concept was rendered "sprawiedliwość jako bezstronność" ("impartiality"? "lack of bias"?). I feel "uczciwy" means a bit more heartfelt, pangs-of-conscience-avoiding (should hyphens be there?) behaviour than "sprawiedliwy" but it may be idiosyncratic. Another possibility is "słuszny", but that trespasses the domain of "proper".

    What is proves is that perhaps the concept of intuitive (as opposed to ordained or institutionalised, i.e. just) distribution of goods, of stepping on no toes is really difficult to pin down with a single word…

    …which doesn't make me a hardcore Whorfian; not in the least.

    PS. Of course Poles borrowed the word and an angry child's outburst would just as likely be "To nie fair!" as "To nieuczciwe!". Or "To nie w porządku!" ("That's not right!").

  71. Mark Liberman said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    With respect to the question of whether Russian has a term for whistle blower, I'd like to bring this thread together with our many discussions of Orwell's Politics and the English language. Specifically, I'd like to note that English whistle blower belongs to what Orwell called the "huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves", and therefore it violates his first rule of writing: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print".

    So for those who believe in following Orwell's strictures, English doesn't have a word for whistle blower either.

  72. Merri said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    The whole subject is about next to nothing.

    1. For every language A and every language B, there are hundreds of common words in A that aren't translatable 1-to-1 in B, and reciprocally.

    2. Claiming there is anything to be inferred from this is short-sighted. Does anyone want to claim all French rivers are flooded, because French doesn't have a word for 'shallow' ?

    3. Even when nearly all languages don't have a word for it, the associated concept may be solidly understood. Hebrew (and consequently, Yiddish) has a word for 'parents of your son-in-law or daughter-in-law'. Very few 'occidental' languages have. So what ?

  73. Mossy said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    I don’t think this conversation is about next to nothing. It shows two general points of view: people who think that language differences and peculiarities are ultimately minor or happenstance or of relatively little importance compared to commonalities, and those who think those language differences are important.

    I don’t think anyone has said that people who don’t have a word for something can’t understand it. That’s a straw man.

    As a translator I come up against dozens of English words that “don’t exist” in Russian and dozens of Russian words that “don’t exist” in English. Sometimes there is no mystery about them; they simply come out of life in different climates or economic and political systems. But sometimes they are important: they indicate a different belief or value system. That’s a big “so what.” I see that “in the wrong hands” (ill-educated, sensation-seeking journalists, politicians and bigots), this meme can be used to dehumanize the “other.” But in the right hands, teasing out those differences in languages illuminates a great deal about the cultures.

  74. Mark Liberman said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Mossy: I don’t think anyone has said that people who don’t have a word for something can’t understand it.

    Unfortunately, people do say this, or things very closely related to this, all the time. The usual practice is to pair the lack of words with the lack of concepts; this doesn't imply that the lexically-limited individuals *can't* understand the concept, but it does mean that they (allegedly) *don't* understand it, and that their (alleged) lack of a word is evidence for this. A few quotes from earlier posts:

    * Life was lived in the mythic moment; aboriginal languages had no words for "yesterday" or "tomorrow."
    * During his lecture Graham Scott remarked that the word “accountability” has no translation in many languages. […] [This] may limit (and perhaps has already limited) the adoption of … reforms … Or it may lower the quality of their results.
    * "We can't even describe what we're seeing," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference which says it represents 155,000 people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

    The most important problem with such assertions is that the linguistic claims are simply false — it's just not true, for example, that the aboriginal languages of Australia lack words for "yesterday" and "tomorrow". Once such idiocies are cleared out of the way, we can discuss whether cultural differences in cognition are elucidated by examining the distribution and history of word senses and common collocations. And we can argue about how quickly and easily such cognitive differences change, and what role (if any) differences in word-stock play in such changes.

    But it's hard to have a sensible conversation on those topics, because of the numerous loud and enthusiastic contributions by people who appear to have no interest at all in the facts of the matter. (I don't mean to insult commenters on this weblog — I'm talking about the use of these tropes in the society at large.)

  75. Merri said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    > Mossy : but isn't the whole thing biased by the postulate that there must be some reason, any reason, for the absence of a perfect word for something ? And where does that postulate come from ?
    As I wrote, there is no French word for 'shallow' ; and 'early' (like in 'early bird') gives us some problems too. But does this mean anything at all about French culture ?

    You pretend that 'sometimes the lack of a word comes from different climate, sometimes it tells us a lot' ; but in a big majority of cases it doesn't mean or tell anything.

  76. Mossy said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    Actually, I was refering to people posting here. But yes, yes, I am chastened. I see the extreme misuse of this. I just don't want to swing to the other extreme.

  77. Simon Cauchi said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    @* During his lecture Graham Scott remarked that the word “accountability” has no translation in many languages.
    Good heavens! I never expected to see the former head of the New Zealand Treasury (ministry of finance) mentioned in LL.

  78. Mossy said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    When I’m translating a Russian text about, say, medieval Russian churches, I’m not “biased by the postulate that there must be some reason for the absence of the perfect word” in English for about half the terms. I’m just noting the absence and scratching my head as I look through dictionaries to come up with a way of saying it in English. The lack of equivalency “tells” me about different building traditions and materials, differences in religion.

    Sometimes there are different ways of expressing things that I don’t think are particularly revelatory. Over the years, some English-speakers have claimed that the way Russian emotions are expressed as “coming to you” is a sign of Russian passivity, and some Russian-speakers have claimed that the fact that “I” is capitalized in English is a sign of Anglo-American individualism. I think that’s silly. I think the fact that Russians have one word that means “to have some hair of the dog that bit you” has more to do with the ease of Russian word formation than an innate propensity to drink too much.

    But yes, I think there are Russian words without an English equivalent that tell a great deal about Russian culture, and English words without a Russian equivalent that tell a great deal about Anglo-American culture.

    I don’t see why the temptation to misuse or misconstrue distinctions between languages should preclude analyzing them.

  79. Does Fairness Translate?: An Economist and a Linguist Delve into the Cross-Cultural Variation of What We Consider Fair said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    […] Language Log linguist Mark Liberman's analysis of the issue: Well, another interesting question would be, […]

  80. David Marjanović said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    pangs-of-conscience-avoiding (should [the] hyphens be there?)


    some Russian-speakers have claimed that the fact that “I” is capitalized in English is a sign of Anglo-American individualism. I think that’s silly.

    I suppose it came from the fact that the i-dot was introduced to make the letter visible in a long sequence of vertical strokes (such as when surrounded by m, n, u…). When i was a single word and had spaces around it, it didn't need the dot, so it never got one and was finally interpreted as the capital letter.

  81. Human Language vs SQL Computation « Alexander The Great said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    […] a word for schadenfreude. Usually when somebody says language X doesn't have a word for Y, you won't normally lose money betting against them.  The implication is that people who use that language don't understand the concept being […]

  82. brotzel said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 1:02 am

    "as with Schadenfreude there is English word…"

    Isn't Schadenfreude now in an important sense an English word? Isn't this what languages do when they find a useful sign that better encapsulates a concept elsewhere? Surely modern languages are partly formed by all sorts of former loanwords?

    Somewhere in Mother Tongue, I think, Bill Bryson asserts that the French have no word for "gentleman". This struck me as odd, because apart from "un gentilhomme" and "un monsieur" there is… "un gentleman".

    Such words are surely no longer italicised quotations from other languages as they are quickly appropriated and take on a semantic/morphological life of their own, witness "shopink" above, and -in French – "un shampooing", "un feeling" (= an intuition, funny feeling), "un footing" etc etc. Not to mention "etre fair-play".

  83. brotzel said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 4:41 am

    sorry – meant "as with Schadenfreude there is *no* English word…"

  84. DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » No word for fair? said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    […] Read it. Did you know that fair is one-to-one untranslatable into any other language–that it is distinctly Anglo in origin? […]

  85. Olga said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    I am Russian. When discussing the difficulties of translation, it is difficult to translate the word "fair", but it does have Russian equivalents and you have to choose one of them: blond, lawful, etc. It is not the worst word to translate. The enemies of Russian translators are the following: challenge, lease and waiver. In many cases these words have no Russian equivalent at all. The word "challenge" has a Russian equivalent is case of duels. Yet in the economic context it has none. It can be translated as "problem" or "task" or "aim/ goal". But in all cases the meaning is different. The word "lease" is a "bad" friend of translators. The Russian legislation is different from the British/ American. Our "lease" means 'renting" in most cases: it is not associated with the rights vested in leaseholders. Yet our legislators have introduced the English word "leasing" in the Russian legislation, as they wrongly understood it. They heard about leasing and transliterated the word. The word "waiver" is the worst of all. It has no direct Russian equivalent, yet it is used in contracts. So such clauses are often incorrectly translated. It means to make no claims intentionally, refuse to notice, etc. There is no direct analog in Russian. The expression "notice of waiver" is misunderstood by most translators.

    As to fiction, there are problems in translating the word "blue" as the Russian language makes a distinction between light blue and dark blue, you cannot avoid it. So when you read "blue" you must translate it either "light blue" or "dark blue", but the translator does not know whether it is dark blue or light blue.

    English people have 2 thumbs and eight fingers, but the Russian language does not make a distinction between "thumb" and "finger", so Russians often say "it is as clear as your 10 fingers…" How to translate it otherwise? Englishmen might think that Russians are monsters with 10 fingers plus 2 thumbs…

    When you translate Russian texts into English, the greatest problem is the Russian suffixes. They change the meaning and introduce an emotional scale. In English you can say "my daughter" or "my little daughter". In Russian there exist a great number of the words for daughter: "doch", "dochka", "dochurka", "dochenka", "dshcher". The word "dshcher" is archaic and it is associated with irony. "Dochurka" is "my little daughter", "dochenka" is "my darling daughter" and "doch" is more formal and official than "dochka".

  86. Bill said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 7:34 am

    Well, here goes my two cents' worth again:
    In regard to the word fair, I agree with two of the analyses you posted:
    1)Did you know that fair is […] distinctly Anglo in origin? And a relatively new word at that? (Late 18th century, actually–the industrial revolution apparently also vastly enhanced our capacity to complain.)
    2) From Wieszbicka: "Fair play" as a model of human interaction highlights the "procedural" character of the ethics of fairness. Arguably, the emergence of the concept of "fairness" reflects a shift away from absolute morality to "procedural (and contractual) morality," and from the gradual shift from "just" to "fair" can be seen as parallel to the shifts from good to right and also from wise (and also true) to reasonable: in all cases, there is a shift from an absolute, substantive approach to a procedural one (read: ONE BASED ON INDIVIDUAL JUDGEMENT).
    I should like to add the following: the original meanings of "fair" (Old Norse "fagr" and its anglo-saxon equivalent) correspond to our present meanings of "good", "correct", "nice", "handsome or pretty" AND (well, well, well!!!) "white-skinned" and "blond haired," showing that the innate bias of the word means that the concept of justice in the modern meaning is for application to members of one's ethnic or social group (businessmen in the US maybe?). So, in the "winner-loser" ethic, be "fair" with your competitors but forget about the effects of your actions on the rest of humanity!

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