The lexical measure of your life

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Mark has just supplied new Language Log readers with a reference archive of Language Log posts about languages with lots of words for certain things, and languages with no words for certain things. It is a theme that intrigues ordinary folk; it almost mesmerises them. It is clear that nothing Language Log can do will ever discredit the twin notions that (1) lexical abundance correlates with conceptual or environmental or perceptual richness, and (2) that lexical thrift betokens a poorer and meaner experiential world.

People don't just believe these things, they love these beliefs. Brand new allusions to them show up in print several times a week. Just yesterday, for example, Language Log reader Laura Kalin pointed out to me a report on the Al-Arabiya website that snow had fallen on a mountain in a northern part of the United Arab Emirates, and sure enough (you can see it coming!) the snowfall was said to be so rare "that a lifelong resident of the area said the local dialect does not even have a word for 'snow'." Think about that. How did the resident say this? As Ben Zimmer has pointed out, the Arabic word thalj would do just fine, and the local resident would almost certainly have used that when explaining the point; but in that case, what is the content of the claim that the northern UAE dialects of Arabic do not have a word for snow? Why wouldn't thalj count as their word for snow, just as Allah would (I presume) count as their word for Allah?

Meanwhile, on the same day, I came to page 39 of Martin Cruz Smith's novel December 6 (my airplane reading on the current trip to Holland and Finland), in a passage describing a disastrous fire caused by some paper on a room heater in a paper-and-tatami-mat dwelling in a poor neighbourhood of pre-war Tokyo:

"The way Eskimos had words for different kinds of snow, the Japanese had words for fire: deliberate, accidental, initial flame, approaching blaze, invading, spreading, overwhelming fire."

The way printers love their words for different kinds of font, the way a schoolboy loves his pie (and so presumably he has many words for it), the general reading public loves the idea that your lexicon measures your life.


  1. Troy S. said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    As a variation on a theme, I remember reading somewhere that the ancient Anglo-Saxon concept of colors must have been very different from our modern
    one. They had lots of words for describe the quality of light, which survive as e.g. wan, bleak, dusky, swarthy, etc. but fewer words for hues.
    Is this fallacy, or does it indeed betoken a different experiential world?
    I will not personally make the argument that it is necessarily meaner or poorer, though.

  2. marie-lucie said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    In the modern world we are surrounded by hundreds of objects differing in colour, and some of those are reproduced identically in many, many copies, often differing only in colour. Because we have so many choices of colours (itself because of the perfection of modern colour technology), we try to match or contrast them in pleasing or interesting ways, not only between themselves but also with respect to how they interact with our own skin colour or with the light in our homes, and a slight difference of hue or depth may cause a different aesthetic impression. Precise shades of colour go in and out of fashion, continuing a trend or contrasting with it.

    In older cultures, especially those located in temperate climates, there was little reason to pay that much attention to slight differences of colour, and although the art of dyeing was practiced from very early on (using extracts of plants or animals), it was difficult to obtain a consistent result, and to make those colours last.

    Welsh is reputed to have (among others) colour words meaning green-grey-blue and grey-brown (something like that). This seems strange if one thinks of bright green or bright blue, but a more muted green-grey-blue corresponds to the range of colours of the sea under not very bright skies, and grey-brown corresponds to the range of colours of the earth or of tree bark. Original Germanic colours were probably most of them of this type.

  3. Oana Uiorean said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    Hi, could anyone label this for me please and tell me which sub-field of linguistics deals with studying such matters? I'd love to read up on it. Any seminal text recommendations are also very welcome. Many thanks, great post!

  4. Lameen said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    I'm not well acquainted with the specific situation of Ras Al Khaimah, but there are good reasons why a Standard Arabic term might be counted by speakers as not being part of their dialect.

    Unlike English, which is fairly unusual in using the same language both for education and in the home, Arabic speakers use "Modern Standard Arabic" (Fusha) in education, and their local dialect in the home – and these two are distinct to the point of not being mutually comprehensible without education, and normally regarded by linguists as separate languages. If the word for "snow" is known only to the educated, and was in every case learned through schooling or exposure to Arabs from other regions rather than through conversation with fellow citizens of Ras Al Khaimah, then how can they be expected to regard it as part of the local dialect? Just because I use the word čəkčuka (a type of food) when speaking to the handful of other English-speakers who also know Algerian Arabic that I know doesn't mean I regard it as part of English; my use of the word with them relies on their knowing another language, just as a Ras Al Khaiman's use of the word "thalj" presumably relies on their interlocutor knowing Modern Standard Arabic and not just the local dialect.

    In practice, I suspect that, if there were still any illiterates there who did not know this word, they will by now have learned it from their children or their TVs, if only because of this event! But that's another matter.

  5. Bloix said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that in English we use the word "orange" to denote the color, when the word orange didn't enter English until the 14th century (from Spanish naranja, from Arabic naranj). What did English or Anglo-Saxon speakers use for the color "orange" before that? What did they call the color of carrots?

    But it turns out that orange-colored carrots weren't developed until the 17th c – previously carrots were either dark red, or yellow. So that solved that question.

    But what about hair? Or copper metal? These things were known. And although they have no resemblance in color to blood, they were – and still are – called "red."

    All I can conclude is that the shades of red-yellow that we now lump together as "orange" were sufficiently rare that they didn't need their own name, and were perceived as sufficiently similar to blood in color that it was appropriate to call them "red."

  6. Tadeusz said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:26 am

    I think you make the sort of assumption that GP is so strongly against: that there is some sort of necessary relation between the occurrence of a lexical item and the existence, or frequency of occurrence, of an object, or trait, out there in the world. As it happens, there is an infinite number of objects and traits (I think it is "infinite" in the strict sense of the word) and any language is just a rough and ready classification scheme, though very flexible. It is exactly this non-arbitrariness of meaning that makes it so flexible. Any lexical item can be made to fit any bit of experience, and if there is no one lexical item, we can use a phrase, or any other periphrastic expression. This way we can code an infinite number of experiences by a finite number of lexical items. If you are a native speaker of English you are not bothered by the fact that you have one word for blue, and you do not think there are two types of blue because you have one word. As it happens, for a speaker of Russian there SEEM to be two blue-types and he/she has two words. And they wonder at the inefficiency of English in this respect… Perhaps the sky in England is always one-type blue? Now, compare this to the variety of blues above the steppes. The small, or not, number of words in a language is just a matter of historical coincidence. For some reason the speakers found it convenient to use a large number of words, perhaps it made communication easier to use one short word for this piece of leather than a string of words? These are the sort of question that we can legitimately ask, I believe.

  7. N. N. said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    Consider Jastrow's 'duck-rabbit.' It seems to me that if someone doesn't have the concept of a duck but does have the concept of a rabbit, then they'll be able to see the drawing as a rabbit but not as a duck. And seeing it as a rabbit is a different perceptual experience than seeing it as a duck. If that's right, then at least conceptual abundance correlates with perceptual richness.

    It also seems to me that lexical abundance, for the most part, correlates with conceptual abundance. Certainly one can have a concept of a rabbit (say, as a small, furry, long-eared, animal) without having a word for such an animal. But in most cases, the absence of a word indicates the absence of the concept.

    Can't we say, then, that if someone doesn't have a word for rabbit, then it's likely (even extremely likely) that they're not going to see the duck-rabbit as a rabbit?

  8. John said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    N. N., this idea seems logical at first but – in my opinion at least – has several flaws.

    The first is that there is nothing which would prevent a person who has no concept of a duck to conjecture the possibility of an animal which has a protruding mouth, and therefore see in the picture an animal facing to the left, as well as the rabbit. The picture is a tricky one, because naturally the eye defaults to one interpretation – I see a duck, and only notice the rabbit when I look for it – which means that unless you look for a second interpretation, only one interpretation is evident. But if you do look for another interpretation, regardless of whether you have the word or concept of duck and rabbit, then not only can you see an animal with a bill and an animal with long ears, but an animal with two long rounded horns, an animal with one eye and a strange protrusion on the right side of its head, and so on. And although I've never seen an animal like that last description, I can imagine its existence, and now have a concept for it. Lacking a specific word for a concept does not limit my ability to think it.

    You also say "the absence of a word indicates the absence of a concept." But we can parse most concepts into component parts. In this case, for example, the concept of rabbit includes a great number of other concepts, such as animal, ears, eyes, and so forth – an uncountable number of them, especially considering my concept of rabbit almost certainly would not perfectly align with your concept of rabbit (although, crucially, they must have enough in common for us to be able to meaningfully communicate about rabbits, and, er, rabbits). Given this, someone lacking the concept rabbit could easily arrive at the concept – while still lacking the word – by combining other concepts which, in their agglomeration, recreate the concept of rabbit.

    Frequently, we employ strings of words to convey a single concept, such as the string mental health care worker. Combining multiple words to form a single complex thought is one of the strengths of language, as noted in another article on this site (not sure where, I read it a while back). So even when we lack a word for a concept, it is not the case that we necessarily lack the concept.

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