No words, or too many

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As we've recently seen, people love the idea that a culture is revealed by its lexicon. The earliest example of this trope that I can think of is in Michel de Montaigne's 1580 essay "Of Cannibals". This is one of the founding documents of the "noble savage" tradition, and presents the alleged lack of certain words for certain bad things as evidence of the essential goodness of humanity in the state of nature:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but 'tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them: for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of. How much would he find his imaginary republic short of his perfection? [emphasis added]

I'd be curious to know whether it's now possible to determine which New World language (or language-family) the "cannibal" that Montaigne interviewed in Rouen in 1562 spoke, so that the truth of his assertions about the lack (for example) of a word for lying could be checked. [Update: it was Tupinambá.] I'd lay my money against him, if there were any chance to settle the bet one way or the other.

In later works, it's more common (I think) for alleged lexical impoverishment to be seen as a Bad Thing. At a minimum, it's a sign of (not particularly noble) social primitiveness. Thus Philalethes, "The Distinction between Man and Animals", The Anthropologicial Review, August 1864.

Nor, again, does the possession of a power of abstraction, as Locke supposed, furnish any generic difference between man and brute. In the first place, there are many savage tribes among whom the power of abstraction can be barely said to exist at all, or only in the feeblest measure. The Iroquois have no generic word for "good;" the Mohicans no verb for "I love;" the Chinese no word for "brother;" the Malay no word for "tree" or for "colour;" the Australians no word for "bird;" the Esquimaux no word for "fishing;" though each of these language has a host of specific words for each separate kind of tree, bird, fish, &c.

(It's interesting to see the Chinese called a "savage tribe".) I don't know these languages, but as usual, I'd bet money against the claims, and expect to come out ahead. Of course, in some cases a core English word may be somewhat more abstract than the corresponding words in another language, just as the opposite is sometimes also true — but I'd plan to win money on the hypothesis that Philalethes is blowing smoke, and hasn't even bothered to cherry-pick examples that are valid instances of his contention.

The fact that languages differ somewhat in the generality of their semantic categories can be spun in several different ways — if your terminology is more specific than mine, perhaps this is because you're not yet advanced enough to see the crucial generalization; on the other hand, if it's more general, perhaps this is because you haven't yet learned to make the needed distinctions. This "heads I win, tails you lose" approach is featured in all its ironic glory by Herbert Spencer in The Principles of Sociology, 1893. On p. 354 we learn that

… in the languages of inferior races the advances in generalization and abstraction are so slight that, while there are words for particular kinds of trees, there is no word for tree, and that, as among the Damaras, while each reach of a river has its special title, there is noene for the river as a whole, much less a word for river; or if, still better, we consider the fact that the Cherokees have thirteen verbs to express washing different parts of the body and different things, but no word for washing, dissociated from the part or thing washed; we shall see that social life must have passed through sundry stages, with their accompanying steps in linguistic progress, before the conception of a name became possible.

Amazingly, in the preceding paragraph Spencer makes the opposite complaint about the linguistic inadequacies of inferior races, namely that they are unable to see the world accurately because they have not yet learned to make fine enough distinctions:

"the colours green, black, and brown are habitually confounded in common Arabic parlance" … The Kamschadales have "but one term for the sun and moon" …

One of the all-time champion "no words for X" memes, at least in terms of durability and frequency, was documented by Ian Hancock ("Duty and beauty, possession and truth: lexical impoverishment as control", in Thomas Alan Acton and Gary Mundy, eds., Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity). I'll quote at length from his explanation, which includes quotations from Virginia Woolf, Erich von Stroheim, and Piers Anthony:

A number of authors have claimed that, because of our character as a people, Roma lack certain virtues, and that this is reflected in the Romani language which cannot even express them. Those which have been discussed by different writers include duty, possession, truth, beautiful, read, write, time, danger, warmth and quiet. […]

Over a century ago, Adriano Colocci first introduced a notion which has since because a part of gypsilorist folk wisdom. In his extensive discussion of the Romani people in his 421-page book, The Gypsies, he maintained that Roma:

"…have no more conception of property than of duty; 'I have' is as foreign to them as 'I ought'"

Citing Colocci as his source, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1918:41) elaborated upon the statement in his widely-used book […]

"The word ought does not exist in the Gypsy language. The verb to have is almost forgotten by the European Gypsies, and is unknown to the Gypsies of Asia"

In 1928, Konrad Becovici […] repeated this notion […]

"I am attempting to unravel the story of a people whose vocabulary lacks two words — 'duty' and 'possession'."

[…] This was then picked up … shortly afterwards by Erich von Stroheim (1935:12) …

"The Gypsy mind is timeless. The Gypsy tongue has no words to signify duty or possession, qualities that are like roots, holding civilized people fast in the soil."

Fifteen years later the anonymous author of an article in Coronet Magazine plagiarised and reworded the same statement:

"Even today, there are two important English words for which the Gypsy vocabulary has no known equivalent, and for which the Gypsy people have never exhibited any desire or need. One of them is the word 'duty', the other is 'possession'".

In a 1962 reissue of Leland's Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, Margery Silver wrote […]:

"[In Germany], where they had been chronically subjected to the most relentless and brutal oppression of their European experience since their first appearance in 1417, five hundred thousand 'sons of Egypt' — whose vocabulary a recent writer has described as 'lacking two words: duty and posession' — died in the Nazi ovens beside six million sons of jacob, whose history has founded on just those concepts, duty to God and possession of his law"

Five years after that, […] the statement turns up again in an article by Marie Wyn Clarke […]:

"A young Gypsy wife said, 'There is no word in our language for "duty" or "possession", but I'm afraid there will be soon'."

In her introduction to the 1983 edition of Bercovici's Gypsies: Their life, lore and legends, Elizabeth Congdon Kovanen repeats this yet again …:

"The Gypsy vocabulary lacks the words 'duty' and 'possession'. This reflects their unwillingness to settle down, live in houses, obey the law, educate their children, be emplyed by others — and helps to explain their almost universal persecution."

The eighth repetition fo this strange idea is found in a novel by Piers Anthony (1988), Being a Green Mother. […] The author describes someone's attempt to learn Romani, who:

"discovered that the Gypsy language had no words for what in her own were rendered as 'duty' and 'possession.' This was because these concepts were foreign to the Gypsy nature."

The most recent … is found in Roger Moreau's The Rom:

"One thing the Romani chib never acquired, though, was a future tense. Maybe this was a reflection of their attitude to life? … Neither is there a verb 'to have' or a word for 'possession' in Romanes, which I suppose makes sense if you don't happen to own anything".

…[O]ther words which Romani has been said not to have include: truth, beautiful, read, write, time, danger, warmth and quiet. The first was maintained by Jim Phelan, author of several books about Romanichals in which he describes his intimate life with British Travellers and in which he claims to ahve been "long ago admitted to the brotherhood". In his book Wagon Wheels (1951) he says:

"There is no word for 'truth' in the romani (sic) language. There is the crux of the matter."

The concept 'beautiful' is denied in the language in Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando (1956):

"One evening, when they were all sitting around the camp fire and the sunset was blazing over the Thessalian hills, Orlando exclaimed, 'How good to eat!' The gipsies have no word for 'beautiful'. This is the nearest."

The latest claim to a lack of certain basic human responses or skills is found in Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey (1995) wehre she maintain that there are no words in Romani for 'read' and 'write'. Elsewhere ni the same book she states that there are no words for 'time', 'danger', 'warmth' and 'quiet' either because these are foreign concepts for Roma. Even before the book reached the bookstores, reviewers were accepting and repeating these false assumptions:

"[The Gypsy's] is a world … where there are no words for 'time' (for for 'danger', 'warmth' or 'quiet') .. where no day is different from any other" (Kobak 1995:14)

Like Bayle St. John, who saw lexical thefts as a more appropriate label than lexical adoptions in his discussion of the non-native element in the Romani vocabulary, none of the above writers sufficiently overcame their stereotypical preconceptions of Gypsies or of what they expected of the language, to ask a Gypsy himself whether these words existed or even to consult a Romani dictionary, of which dozens exist.

Needless to say, the whole hundred years of lexico-cultural speculation is nonsense, due to the simple fact that the assertions about the Romani vocabulary are completely false. As Hancock explains:

For a people who were enslaved in the Romanian principalities for five and a half centures, a people whose lives were an interminable succession of duties and obligations, and for whom possession were a precious thing, it should not be surprising that there are in fact many words for these two concepts.

But maybe they haven't yet achieved the appropriate level of generalization? Except of course for the cases where they've failed to make an adequate number of critical distinctions…


  1. Cameron said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    Another point of view, worth considering alongside Montaigne in this context, is Vico's view. He held that the strength of ancient Greek and Roman cultures lay in the fact that they still had "poetic" languages. In other words, since they had a limited store of words to draw on, they were forced to coin words to express themselves. And this coining is often metaphoric, and hence in his terminology "poetic". He saw German as a "living poetic language" since he saw that German speakers dipping into their native stock of word roots and coming up with poetic metaphors to express themselves. He saw a great future in German as a language for philosophy if Germans were ever to start writing philosophy in their native language. (I expect Heidegger never read Vico, because if he had, he'd probably have brought up that passage in the New Science over and over and over . . .)

    So there is a tradition in European thought of seeing a paucity of vocabulary as a strength, and not a weakness, because it spurs creativity on the part of speakers to express themselves poetically, and create new concepts along the way.

  2. Dan Milton said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    In the same grand tradition, Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D. in his 1851 "On the Study of Words" wrote "I have read of a tribe in New Holland, which has no word to signify God, but has one to designate a process by which an unborn child may be destroyed in the bosom of its mother."
    Neither the Australian aborigine nor the English Victorian had the sophistication to come up with "prolife" and "prochoice".

  3. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    I don't know about Vico, but that's certainly not how the Romans themselves saw it. They were very aware of the *difference* between Latin and Greek in this area.
    Characteristic is Lucretius:

    "Nunc et Anaxagorae scrutemur homoeomerian,
    Quam Grai memorant, nec nostra dicere lingua
    Concedit nobis patrii sermonis egestas;
    Sed tamen ipsam rem facilest exponere uerbis. "

    "Now let's look at Anaxagoras's "homoeomeria", as the Greeks call it; though the poverty of our native language gives us no word for it, it's nevertheless straightforward to explain the concept in words."

    Lucretius: De rerum natura, Book 1, 830ff

    Indeed one of the striking things about classical Latin is that where Greek would come up with a new compound or other neologism, the Romans (like Cicero) who translated them preferred to give an existing Latin word a new technical sense. (Cicero actually discusses this somewhere.)

    I'd say the characteristic difference between Greek and Latin strategies here is actually a pretty good counterexample to this sort of nonsense. (As is Lucretius' own remark)

  4. Faith said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    In Yiddish circles, I. B. Singer is renowned for having said in his Nobel acceptance speech that Yiddish is "a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics"–that's the official text from the Nobel prize site. But if you listen to the audio that's linked there, you'll hear that he makes this assertion *in Yiddish, using the perfectly good Yiddish words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, and war tactics.

  5. Chris Kern said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    Chinese does not have a *single* word for brother (or at least not one that's used in common speech), it has one word for older brother and one word for younger brother. Apparently that writer felt like the lack of a covering term for "brother" was a weakness of Chinese.

    [(myl) Right — and the neat thing is, if Philalethes had been Chinese, he could have pointed out that the lack of differentiation between 弟 and 哥 demonstrates the coarse and under-evolved sensibilities of the Anglo barbarians. ]

  6. Karen said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    Hey, the Russians have no word for "sibling"! You have to say "brother or sister". I'm fairly certain this doesn't mean they don't grasp the concept…

  7. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Wouldn't be surprised if that was Singer's sense of humour.
    Self-referential irony in the first Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Yiddish would be just so *right*.

  8. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    As for the unknown New World language, my bet would be on South America. Maybe Piraha? After all, as we well know, they don't have words for lots of things. I know the Wari' have a history of cannibalism (though I suppose the ritual isn't that uncommon cross-culturally). My colleague Josh Birchall, who is currently doing fieldwork on Wari', would probably be better able to answer such a question.

  9. Cameron said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    In the early 90s I would often hear the obligatory rants about how using "he" as the default third person singular pronoun was sexist. I liked to point out that in Persian there is only one third person singular pronoun, and that there's no way (using a pronoun alone) to specify gender. I'd go further and point out that Persian has no analogues to feminizing suffixes like -ette, -enne, etc. And that in the complete absence of all vestiges of grammatical gender, the only way to indicate that someone you are referring to is a woman is to explicitly state that the person in question is a woman. I'd then ask my interlocutor to consider whether they thought that state of affairs in the Persian language reflected a fundamental equality between the sexes in Iranian society.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    Quite often people equate the lack of a certain single word, usually a noun, with the lack of a concept, which may be conveyed in a different syntactic category, or by a different metaphor. For instance, there may not be an abstract noun corresponding to "possession", but there may be a verb corresponding to "to have". Lacking the verb "to have", a language may use a different sentence structure altogether: for instance "there is a house to me" or "my house stands" instead of "I have a house". No word for "lying"? How about "speak with forked tongue"?

    On the other hand, languages which "don't have a word for X" may have many ways of expressing the concept X, both directly and metaphorically but their speakers may not be trying to ask speakers of the dominant language how they would translate their words.

  11. Z. D. Smith said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    Maybe Singer was talking about words for different species of tactics, weapons, etc? Still demonstrably false, but not self-evidently so.

  12. Faldone said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    English has no word for the parent of the spouse of one's child.

  13. Z. D. Smith said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    And is it any wonder that the American family is in such decline?

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    Poking around among some books on related subjects, I've found reasons to believe that Montaigne's Indians were Tupi-speaking (maybe Tupinambá) from Brazil, and that he got much of his information from a book by Jean de Léry (Histoire d'un voyage fair en la terre du Brésil: autrement dite Amérique), who spent two years during the 1550s as a missionary in a French colony at what is now Rio de Janeiro.

    According to Brazil's Indians and the Onslaught of Civilization (p. 30)

    Montaigne had the rare expreience of meeting three Tupi warriors who had been taken to France to be shown to the king.

    Ethnologue tells us that Tupinambá is extinct; the "modern descendant is Nhengatu" (which is a trade language), and there are several closely related languages still alive.

  15. Carrie Shanafelt said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    In Gulliver's Travels IV.3, Gulliver describes a conversation he has with his Master Houyhnhnm during which he learns that they have no word for "Lying or Falsehood." Given the various incongruities of the Houyhnhnms' ideals and their behavior, I think this is intended as a parody of Montaigne (and others who make the same sorts of "no word for X" claims):

    I answered, That I came over the Sea from a far Place, with many others of my own Kind, in a great hollow Vessel made of the Bodies of Trees. That my Companions forced me to land on this Coast, and then left me to shift for myself. It was with some Difficulty, and by the help of many Signs, that I brought him to understand me. He replied, That I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the Thing which was not. For they have no Word in their Language to express Lying or Falsehood. He knew it was impossible that there could be a Country beyond the Sea, or that a parcel of Brutes could move a Wooden Vessel whither they pleased upon Water. He was sure no Houyhnhnm alive could make such a Vessel, nor would trust Yahoos to manage it.

    Clearly, they do have a conception of lying. They use "say the Thing which is not" quite frequently, as does Gulliver when he returns, which he takes on as a sort of affectation from his travels.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    How about "half-sibling of one's child, resulting from former's spouse remarriage and new family"? this is not the same as a half-sibling resulting from remarriage after the death of one parent, as that child presumably lives with the surviving parent and is known as the step-child of the step-parent who takes the place of the dead spouse. I mean one's child's half-sibling through a former spouse, a child that one may know and like but to whom one is not a step-parent.

    I read an article years ago about the extremely detailed Russian kinship nomenclature, covering a wide variety of relationships, for instance "child born to a daughter-in-law but whose father is her father-in-law" (apparently a fairly common situation since a daughter-in-law was living with her husband's family but the husband was away in a distant city in search of work, leaving the father-in-law as the only adult male around).

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Just listened to Singer's speech; he's obviously indulging in linguification, as the bit about tactics etc follows right after he's been talking about Yiddish as a language not corresponding to a geographical state and so forth; same basic idea as Uriel Weinreich's "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot".

    Some of the actual words he uses do seem to belong to a layer of fairly recent loans, mostly from modern German, so I suppose Singer might have argued that they're in some sense not "really" Yiddish. Can't claim that "vufn" is anything but Yiddish though!

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    Actually isn't Singer saying Yiddish lacks words for weapons etc rather than that it lacks the word "weapons"? I think Z D Smith has cracked it. It's still not true an any literal way.

  19. Forrest said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    I'm pretty shocked, too, to see the Chinese listed as an example of savage or barbaric tribes.

    I'm just as surprised to see claims that any group of people would lack a word for "warmth." I could see how the concept might in some cases need a few words to express, but, for warm-blooded animals with an interest in staying alive … I can't see any culture not knowing about warmth.

    It's easy to see how this line of reasoning works. Many cultures don't have a word for uranium, or a distinction between atomic fission and atomic fusion, because many cultures are legitimately unaware of these concepts. This is more of an edge case – fission isn't a core necessity of life – and shouldn't be the default explanation. BEV distinguishes between "he working" meaning he's working right now and "he be working" meaning he works generally, but may or may not be working right now. Distinguishing between habitual and at-the-moment demands a few more words in standard English, but that's not because we're unaware of the concept. As Faldone pointed out about family relations.

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

    The Kusaal language of Northeast Ghana has no words for "brother" or "sister". It does however have three words

    bier: elder sibling of same sex
    pitu: younger sibling of same sex
    taunn: sibling of opposite sex regardless of age.

    From this we see that the Kusaasi are simultaneously more and less savage than Western Europeans.

  21. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Haida is very similar; words for "older sibling of the same sex", "younger sibling of the same sex", "older sibling of the opposite sex", and "younger sibling of the opposite sex". I believe Tlingit is the same or similar; perhaps James Crippen can comment on that.

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    David Eddyshaw: I think you are confusing Uriel Weinreich with his father Max, a Yiddishist.

    About Yiddish: to say, as IBS did (with no hit of humor in his voice), that it has "no word for" anything is absurd. It was a language with no borders, and borrowing (from German, from Hebrew, from the standard international lexicon, from the language of the host country) was as natural to Yiddish-speakers as breathing. "Situation" can be rendered as situatsye, lage, matsev, sitshueyshen.
    About the word "sibling": wasn't it invented by Ernest Jones in order to translate Freud's Geschwisterrivalität? (I have no OED handy.)

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

    I meant to write "hint" not "hit".

  24. mgh said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    Mark, I think there are limited ways in which this idea may hold water.

    For example, in the late 90s the "greeble" experiments showed differences in recognizing an object categorically vs individually (eg, "bird" vs "red-winged blackbird") which correlated with changes in activity in the fusiform gyrus. In the greeble experiments, participants were trained to recognize 20 computer-generated objects ("greebles") that came in either of two genders ("plok" and "glip"), and any of five families based on the shapes of various appendages (two "boges", a "quiff" and a "dunth"). Each individual has a name ("Vali", "Pimo", etc.). See "Training Greeble Experts".

    An interesting question is whether participants would have learned to recognize individual greebles as readily if they had not been given names for them. There appears to be some limited data in the paper linked above (and there may be more available elsewhere, I don't know).

    In one exercise, participants were shown greebles for which they had or had not been taught names, and asked to provide the name (if they knew it) or to mark it as "unknown". The authors mention that participants were faster to recognize named greebles than they were to recognize unnamed ones (ie, they paused longer before hitting "unknown" than they did before entering a name.)

    There are obviously several possible explanations for this, but one interpretation — that having a name for something makes it easier to recognize — jibes with the popular intuition that the ability to recognize more individual characters ("more kinds of snow") comes along with having labels for those characters ("more words for snow"). Obviously it is an argument ad absurdum to say that not having a word for something means a speaker is unable to conceptualize it — but is it as absurd to think that recognizing more types of individuals would lead to an abundance of labels, at least in one's mind, to distinguish those individuals?

    I apologize if the greeble studies have already been discussed here, in your voluminous postings on the topic! And, to be clear, the name-vs-concept connection was NOT what the greeble study was designed to test; I am just wondering if it might be relevant.

  25. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    @Coby Lubliner:

    Quite so: Max not Uriel. Careless mistake. Thanks. (In fact, neither, apparently, according to the elder Weinreich himself, if Wikipedia is correct …)

    I agree it's as untrue of Yiddish (if not more so) as of English to claim as a linguistic fact that it "has no word for X".

    My take on IBS's speech is in fact that it's an example of linguification.

    I did wonder whether disapprobation of the trappings of modern militarism as wholly inconsistent with traditional Yiddishkeit might be spilling over into a feeling that the very words used to describe it were not proper Yiddish, but on reflection that's reading far too much into what's probably really just a rhetorical flourish on his part.

    I also agree, no humour is detectable. I was wrong.

  26. Faith said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    @ZD Smith
    People give Bashevis way too much credit for irony.

    @David Eddyshaw
    Not to be pedantic (but why not), but only one of the words he uses is daytshmerish, according to Weinreich (fils): ibungen. The rest–amunitsye, militerish, taktik–are all "internationalisms" but have long use in Yiddish.

  27. Faith said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

    Sorry, that was David who made the irony comment, not ZD. Disregard.

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 10:58 pm


    I'll match your pedantry, and raise you:
    Amunitsye certainly isn't daytshmerish, and taktik could be anything; I think I'd stand up for militerish though. I can't think of any relevant language other than German with this particular form (especially the -er- rather than -ar-).

    I must concede that there isn't a lot left of my (not very serious) original thesis. I think IBS is riffing on a sort of (to him) idealised Yiddish with awkward corners left out. But then, what *do* you say when you receive the Nobel prize for literature, after all?

  29. dr pepper said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

    @ Faldone

    English has no word for the parent of the spouse of one's child.


  30. dr pepper said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    @Carrie Shanafelt

    I already referred to "saying the thing which is not" in this thread.

  31. Fluxor said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

    The Chinese word for brother is xiōngdì (兄弟). It's a compound word that combines elder brother 兄 and younger brother 弟.

  32. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:16 am

    Mark asked:

    I'd be curious to know whether it's now possible to determine which New World language (or language-family) the "cannibal" that Montaigne interviewed in Rouen in 1562 spoke, so that the truth of his assertions about the lack (for example) of a word for lying could be checked.

    You don't seem to have had many takers to your question, and I am not a specialist either, but Montaigne's essay starts:

    "I long had a man in my house that lived ten or twelve years in the New World, discovered in these latter days, and in that part of it where Villegaignon landed, which he called Antarctic France."

    According to wikipedia "Antarctic France" seems to have been located in Guanabara Bay near Rio de Janeiro, and according to the wikipedia pages the languages linked to that area would be Tupi-Guarani.
    I am sort of wondering whether it matters. My first question would really be how Montaigne obtained (or tried to obtain) this information in the first place. Most likely he would have interviewed the native in French, directly asking questions like "how do you say X". But as anyone who has tried fieldwork knows this is not likely to be a successful method for answering such difficult questions.

  33. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:20 am

    @Fluxor: does "xiōngdì (兄弟)" unambiguously distinguish between brother(s) and sibling(s)? In Japanese "kyodai" (spelled the same) does not, though "shimai" (姉妹) does refer to sisters.

  34. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:56 am

    The authors mention that participants were faster to recognize named greebles than they were to recognize unnamed ones… There are obviously several possible explanations for this, but one interpretation — that having a name for something makes it easier to recognize — jibes with the popular intuition that the ability to recognize more individual characters ("more kinds of snow") comes along with having labels for those characters ("more words for snow").

    Why wouldn't it be just as likely an interpretation that it takes longer to react to a novel stimulus than one they've been primed to recognize? I think that it's a quite a stretch to claim that your interpretation is the only one. Further, while I don't believe that this particular experiment has been discussed on here, the subject of "words for snow" has been covered extremely well, and is in fact part of the entire thrust of this genre of post. Given your invocation of the "words for snow" meme, I'd recommend reading this post as a starting point to familiarize yourself with the extensive scholarship of Language Log's own Geoff Pullum.

    If you spend a little time digging around here, you'll quickly find a high level of skepticism with claims that subscribe to a Whorfian interpretation of language and thought, as you may have noticed from the thrust of this particular post. This subject comes up a lot, and most all of the regular contributors are pretty well versed in the arguments, both popular and academic. A popular title (in these parts) given in the post linked above is a collection of essays also written by Geoff, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

    Overall, though, popular "intuitions" or belief that greater assumed familiarity of a culture with a particular subject (generally based on pre-existing stereotypes of that culture) are going to be tied to a greater range of specialized tokens for that subject is not something that has ever been conclusively demonstrated to have a basis in fact. The very example you give of the snow-meme is a famous example of unsupported claims about the richness or paucity of the lexicon of a language. The entire point of this post, as I see it, is the absurdity of the arguments that have been made regarding this "popular intuition".

  35. Mossy said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:03 am

    Russian also doesn’t make the distinction between hand/arm, foot/leg and the digits on your hands and toes. But, as I’ve written in other places, that doesn’t mean people don’t see the difference or get confused all the time about what people are talking about. If you say, “I dropped a bowling ball on my digit and broke it,” chances are you’re talking about your toe.

    On the other hand, the kinship stuff is interesting. There are separate words for a couple generations of relatives of the husband and wife, which are different for each extended family (meaning family of husband or family of wife). So there is one set of words for, say, a wife’s parents-in-law and another set for a husband’s. Lo and behold, Russian families were extremely hierarchical, and your status in the household (who could order whom around) and where you sat at the table were rigidly established. The word “sibling” wouldn’t have been much use in that situation. Now extended families are gone (at least living in one house), and most people don’t remember the words or what they mean (except for immediate in-laws).

  36. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    The kinship terminology of the Kusaal example I mentioned above also reflects the way traditional society is organised; the concept of seniority pervades the whole system e.g. in the status of cousins with regard to each other (I'm senior to you, regardless of our ages, if my parent is senior to your parent of the same sex) but the distinction gets neutralised when you change across the sexes, eg

    there are different words for my father's brothers depending on seniority to my father, but only one word for "father's sister"

    there are different words for my mother's sisters depending on seniority, but only one word for "mother's brother" (despite this being a culturally important role)

    The three brother-sister relationship words are used for cousins who share a parent of the same sex; there are no special words for other cousins (though obviously one can say the equivalent of "my mother's-brother's child" etc)

    The system doesn't currently match up with who you're permitted to take as a spouse; you have to marry outside your (patrilineal) clan, but it's not usual to marry any cousin even if from a different clan (unlike with the matrilineal Ashanti)

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 6:58 am

    Not "share a parent of the same sex", sorry – I mean "are related via parents who are either brothers or sisters but not via a brother and a sister".

    The terminology for in-laws shares the system's tendency to treat everybody of the same sex in a group of first-degree relatives as if they were all aspects of one super-individual.

    My wife's sisters have different names depending on their seniority to my wife, but can be simply called "my wife" too; my wife's brother has a single term regardless of seniority.

    My husband's brothers are my senior or junior husbands; my husband's sister has a relationship word of her own, the same regardless of seniority.

  38. mgh said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 9:35 am

    Bryn, it was not a novel stimulus. The training set included 30 greebles, 20 of which were given names and 10 which were not. Participants were exposed repeatedly to all 30, and gradually learned the names of new ones. During this training, they were faster at recognizing ones for which they had learned the names than they were at passing over the others. I believe this discounts your suggestion.

    I appreciate your pointing me to the previous posts, and as I said above I'm familiar with many of them. I'm not a linguist, and I realize this is an area where non-linguists are the subject of mockery and disgrace, but most of these posts have read to me as strawman take-downs.

    My reading is that the "no word for X" story has been reduced here to an argument about whether an institutionalized vocabulary (like a dicitionary) has a discrete word (whatever that means) for X, and whether the people who nominally speak that vocabulary (although who uses all the words in a dictionary?) can therefore conceptualize X (duh).

    To me, the more interesting underlying question is, are differences in the ability to recognize individual types rather than categorical types — which was argued in the greeble studies to be a bona fide different way of seeing, eg, birds vs cars for bird-watchers vs car-lovers — is facilitated by having more names for those individual types.

    Put another way, obviously English has a lot of words for different kinds of birds. But, I don't know them all, I never use them myself, and I wouldn't recognize the animals as anything but "bird". The few names I would use myself — sparrow, pigeon, eg — are ones I would recognize as individuals types not categorical "birds". On the other hand, I know my language has a word (well, noun phrase) for cedar waxwing, but I would not recognize one (though if you told me about one obviously I could conceptualize it). But I definitely feel that "sparrow" and "cedar waxwing" are treated differently in my vocabulary and this reflects some underlying particulation of the world held in my mind.

  39. hanmeng said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    I know of no English vocabulary that I can use to discuss in detail my aesthetic likes and dislikes. This may be my own personal failing, but others who discuss books and movies seem to labor under the same failing, usually just resorting to a plot summary with a couple of other vague remarks, when there is often so much more to the work.

  40. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    @ hammaeng – books may be a different question, as they're often as full of words as the discussions about them, but someone (maybe Frank Zappa) is said to have said that "writing about Art is like dancing about architecture".

  41. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    @Nicholas: Actually, the usual form is "Writing about music…" Zappa is one of many people that quote is attributed to, but the earliest known citation is from Elvis Costello in 1983.

  42. Ryan said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    I'd just like to throw out there that the standard construction in Russian equivalent to "I have" in the sense of possession literally translates as "By me is (noun)." They have a verb иметь, to have, but it's more for abstractions than concrete things. Another instance of English barbarism?

  43. Chris Schoen said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Obviously it is an argument ad absurdum to say that not having a word for something means a speaker is unable to conceptualize it.

    This is true, but I think it's the wrong way to approach the "no word for X" question. We need to distinguish between what a speaker is unable to do, and what she or he simply does not do. People of normal intelligence can be taught the distinctions provided by other languages, such as "schadenfreude," or "toe". And they can be taught generalizations that don't occur natively, like "brother" or "washing." But should we assign no significance to the fact that they do not use these words without extra-linguistic influence? Does it make no statement about the relationship between thought and language (or between "worldview" and language) that some cultures can express a concept directly with a single word, while others need to string together phrases for the same concept? (Toe versus "digit of the foot.")

    In other words, why is it wrong to ascribe a cultural significance to the frequency or absence of naming words?

  44. mgh said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    Chris, exactly. Musically, I don't know a third from a fifth and I'm not aware of hearing those intervals differently, even though I'm aware of the words and I can physically hear the notes. Musicians do distinguish those intervals when they hear them, and I bet a self-taught musician who had never learned about "thirds" would have invented her own word for it while a non-musician would not. The words we keep in our minds are a shadow of how we perceive the world. There are deeper questions here, about the power of assigning a name to something, than what has been discussed in these posts.

  45. dr pepper said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    It's a matter of communication, not recognition. I don't know what a cedar waxwing is either, but if there were a bunch of them around, i'd soon be able to distinguish them from other birds. But if someone asked me to say what birds were in a picture, i'd probably go "robin, crow, finch, and uh, one of those birds with–" whatever markings.

  46. Bev Rowe said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    The problems with no-word-for-x-ism are that so many of its propositions are plainly false and that they come laden with value judgements.
    And then, the whole thing can be quite banal. It would be very surprising indeed if Inuit languages had nore words for types of sand than types of snow, and Arabic more words for snow than sand.

  47. Emily said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    It's interesting how one of the lexical impoverishment claims for the Rom "gypsies" — that they don't have a word for time– resembles the claim that the Moken "sea gypsies" of Southeast Asia don't have a concept of time. Could the former claim possibly have inspired the latter, as both ethnic groups are called "gypsies"?

  48. mgh said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    Bev, bird-lovers have more words for "bird" than I do, and car afficionados have more words for "car"…

  49. Fluxor said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    @Philip Spaelti: In Chinese, xiōngdì (兄弟) does unambiguously mean brother(s) and not sibling(s). As in Japanese, 姊妹 means sister(s) only. If you want sibling(s) in Chinese, you just combine brothers and sisters: 兄弟姊妹

  50. Mossy said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    "…they come laden with value judgements"
    I'd add: or people infer value judgments in observations about differences in language/culture. If you note the absence of a word or concept in another language/culture, it doesn't mean that you think the absence is bad in any way.

  51. dl said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    reply to Fluxor

    xiōngdì (兄弟) doesn't really mean "brother", in the sense that you can't say in Mandarin *“他是我的兄弟” (%he is my brother). And even if you're pointing to a pair of guys who happen to be your elder and younger brother, you can't quite say, ??"他们是我的兄弟" (%they are my brothers), where 兄弟 distributes over the atoms of the plurality and does not predicate over the whole group [cf. 他们是我的朋友 (they are my friends)]. In other words, xiōngdì (兄弟) isn't simply a plural form of "brother" either. Rather, it means something more like "brethren". Same thing for 姐妹.

    On a different note: "the Malay no word for "tree" or for "colour;", I was like, "Huh??" when I read this… The Malay word for "tree" is pokok and for "color" warna. Both can be used perfectly generically.

  52. MT said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    I think it's that anthropology has has no word for rube or patsy.

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