No word for lying?

« previous post | next post »

I don't know about the languages that Montaigne was thinking of, but the claim that some languages lack a word for lying is one that has continued to crop up. A few months ago Steven Point, who is currently the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, asserted that there is no word for "lying" in his language, Halkomelem. It appears, however, that he is mistaken: my sources say that in his language smétnqən means "to lie, speak falsely" and that q̓íq̓əl̓stéxʷ means "to lie, deceive".

An earlier example of the same theme is due to no other than John Wayne, who in the classic western Hondo asserts that "The Apaches have no word for 'lie'." That is sort of true: the Western Apache dictionary that I own lists not one but two different expressions for lying. There is a verb meaning specifically "to lie", e.g. ɬeíɬchoo "he lies", as well as an expression meaning "to lie, deceive", e.g. bich'ii' nashch'aa "I lie to him".

It may well be true that these cultures have a particularly negative view of lying, but tall tales about the lack of a word for it aren't a good way of making this point.


  1. Karl Voelker said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    That John Wayne quote feels to me more like a metaphor than a statement of fact.

  2. Bill Poser said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 4:11 am

    Karl Voelker,

    How can you tell? In principle one could say that of any such claim, since they invariably turn out to be false, if we were to assume that the speakers know what they are talking about. The problem is that this is not established as a figure of speech, so that it seems like an assertion of fact, so using it as one is misleading.

  3. Tom Saylor said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 5:30 am

    Speaking of John Wayne, I recall that in old Hollywood westerns English-speaking Indians were represented as using the phrase "speak with forked tongue" in place of "lie," as in "White man break treaty; him speak with forked tongue." I'd always sort of assumed that this was supposed to be a literal translation from some Native American language that had no single word for "lie."

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    If you read the story synopsis for Hondo, and the quotes from it at IMDB — or better yet, watch the whole thing — you'll see that truth, lies, and legends are a central theme; and you'll also see that the Apache in the movie are definitely presented as understanding very well what lies are, and John Wayne's character (who is half Indian) as knowing this.

    Unfortunately, I don't remember the context of the "no word for lie" line, but I suspect that his character's use of this trope must be a moral judgment, not an ontological one.

  5. Karen said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    John Wayne didn't say it, Hondo said it. I doubt Wayne had an opinion on the Apaches and their language; he, as an actor, spoke the line given him by the screenwriter, James Edward Grant (working from a Louis L'Amour novel).

    It's always a bit startling to me how people take the words of a character for the words of the actor, and invest them with that person's weight.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    Here's the passage from the Louis L'Amour novel:

    "Mrs. Lowe." Hondo straightened from his job. "If you've got good sense you'll pack up you and that child and come out with me. There's a lot of trouble cookin' in the Apache lodges. The main chief, Vittoro, has called a council. A full report of it is in the dispatches I'm carryin'."

    "Oh, no." She shook her head with decision. "We've always got along splendidly with the Apaches. They drink and water their horses at our spring. I haven't seen the great Vittoro, but there've been plenty of Apaches here."

    "I've seen Vittoro." Hondo's tone was grim. "Before the treaty. He had forty scalps hung in his horse's mane."

    "But that was before the treaty."

    "We broke that treaty," Hondo persisted patiently. "There's no word in the Apache language for 'lie,' and they've been lied to. If they rise there won't be a live white in the territory."

    Later in the book, Vittoro actually asks Hondo to lie. A bit before the next segment, he compliments him (for detecting an Apache trying to sneak up on him) by saying "You are Apache". Then the following exchange occurs (Vittoro speaking first):

    "Now hear me! The pony soldiers are near. Soon will be fought a remembered fight. They will come here first. You will not go with them, white man."

    "I will not go with them."

    "The leader of the pony soldiers will question you. You will say you have seen the Apaches trailing to the west."

    "This I will not do."

    "You will not?"

    "I will not."

    There was a long moment of silence while the leaves rustled. Somewhere a fish jumped.

    "You have a good man," Vittoro said at last to Angie. "Treasure him."

    So as I suspected, the "no word for lie" trope in this book is a moral statement rather than an ontological one. The (weird) logic seems to be that to give something a name is at some level to approve of it, and so choosing not to have a word for something is the strongest sort of negative moral judgment. Or something like that.

    Of course, it's objectively false in any case. Bill has already told us something about Western Apache, and information about the lying-related vocabulary of Eastern Apache is no doubt out there.

  7. language hat said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    The problem is that this is not established as a figure of speech

    And yet you diligent Loggers have turned up dozens of such "claims," none of which has turned out to be "true" (in the sense that such words can be found in dictionaries). How much more evidence do you need that it is just as much a figure of speech as "He doesn't know the meaning of the word X" (often "fear"), which you all would doubtless be refuting with just as much dogged assiduity if you could find a way of proving for each such claim that the person in question did in fact know the meaning of the word? Language is not always used for scientific truth value, as shocking as this may be.

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    Bill, concerning the question of whether this is an acceptable choice metaphor (for you hopefully don't doubt that at least some speakers /intend/ it metaphorically)

    If I say to you "Failure isn't in my vocabulary", hopefully this you accept as metaphor, rather than a rather robotic, stilted way of explaining that I don't understand what you said? Google produces a fair smattering of examples of words which metaphorically aren't in the writer or speaker's vocabulary.

    We also see "isn't in my dictionary" used this way (I tried "isn't in my spellchecker" too but the examples I found seemed to be words which actually weren't in someone's spellchecker).

    So what's wrong with using this to make a sweeping generalisation about another culture via its language? Note, not "what's wrong with sweeping generalisations" but, what's wrong with this way of doing it via metaphor?

    I think this is becoming a peeve. The first examples I saw on Language Log were clearly bullshit (in the technical sense – claims made without interest in their veracity) but more recently we've started to see examples like this one, where someone makes a metaphorical claim and L'Loggers leap all over it because it is technically false. Remind me not to say I "could eat a horse" around you lot.

  9. language hat said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    Let me put it another way: I seriously doubt whether a single person reading the novel or watching the movie, aside from linguists of a certain stamp, would give a damn if you were to show them the relevant section of a dictionary proving that Western Apache has not one but two different expressions for lying. They would probably look at you as if you were nuts. Does this not suggest that you may be barking up the wrong tree? (You can, of course, dispute the suggested results of the experiment, in which case I invite you to canvass L'Amour and Wayne fans and see.)

    [(myl) Speaking for myself, at least, I'm not complaining (at least about Louis L'Amour etc.), I'm just interested.

    With respect to the Romani words for 'duty' and 'possession', Ian Hancock was definitely complaining, and I think that he had a right to complain, since the sentiments implied or expressed are damaging and false culturally as well as linguistically.

    And it seems clear to me that there's a spectrum of "no word for X" usage, from examples that are purely rhetorical to examples that are meant quite literally. Most if not all of the examples that Hancock cites seem to be meant literally — and also, uses that are purely rhetorical in origin are often taken literally by others who spread them around. Whether this matters or not depends on the case — some become harmless urban legends and other are harmful urban legends.

    There's some value — or at least amusement — in debunking even harmless urban legends, it seems to me. But my own main interest is in the nature and strength of the folk linguistics that lies behind the whole process.

    As for the attitudes of Louis L'Amour fans, I'm one of them, and my guess (as a reader, not a linguist) is that he had heard more than once that Apache (or some other Indian language) has no word for 'lie', and that he thought it was true, and meant his character to mean it literally, just as Montaigne meant his assertion about Tupinambá vocabulary literally. But I'll ask some other L'Amour fans how they interpret the passage in question.

    It's true that none of this affects my evaluation of the book or the movie, and I'd be surprised to learn that others "give a damn", in your phrase, from that perspective either. But I don't see what that has to do with the question of what such expressions mean and how people interpret them. If we used this criterion of exclusion — would the general public give a damn about X if we explained it to them? — how much of your own blog would be left? ]

  10. Rick S said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    @Language Hat: Memes springing from no word for "lie" probably do no serious damage, since they are intended to say something positive about the speakers' culture. But it can go the other way, and those can certainly cause trouble. What if someone were to write (metaphorically, of course) The Koreans have no word for "negotiate"?

    [(myl) You don't need a hypothetical example for this, as there are plenty of real ones — for instance, the long series of citations from Ian Hancock's essay on the alleged lack of words for 'duty' and 'possession' in Romany, cited at tedious length in an earlier post here.

    But even if these memes were always harmless, they would still be interesting, especially to the extent that they're meant (or understood) literally rather than metaphorically.

    None of this is to say that there are not real vocabulary differences among languages (or groups of speakers within a language), or that these differences don't sometimes have cultural or cognitive causes andeffects. But it's hard to do good research on this problem — in part because of the density and strength of misconceptions that surround it. And so there's not much good research (or even clear thinking in a non-scientific mode), and an enormous amount of woo.

    In these respects, it's rather like the question of cognitive differences between the sexes, or among ethnic groups. ]

  11. Nick Lamb said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Rick S,

    any damage is a consequence of the sweeping generalisations, rather than of the choice of metaphor used to make those generalisations

    When a man says to me, quite straight-forwardly, that Nigerians are dishonest, I do not take him to really mean that all Nigerians are dishonest, but only that in his opinion Nigerians are on average more dishonest, or that they're more likely to be dishonest than other folk, and I take that at its face value as his opinion, not least because he is a Nigerian, and he seems ironically to be an honest chap.

    There's no metaphor in that example – the generalisation stands on its own. And yes, that was a specific example, the person in question has a great deal more to say about his fellow countrymen, much of it not at all flattering (but he does say that Nigerians are happy, and to be happy is a very good thing indeed).

  12. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    The Salish root for "lie" seems hard to track down. I couldn't find any cognates of that first word in Shuswap, Coeur d'Alene, Okanagan, or Spokane. However, the second root may have some cognates:

    Shuswap qʷílens, 'to deceive'; qʷílenst, 'to lie, cheat'
    Okanagan qʷil, 'cheat', but málXa', 'lie'
    Spokane qʷil, 'cheat'; qil', 'speak or act nicely in order to get one's way', but yóqʷ, 'tell a lie'
    Coeur d'Alene qʷil, 'cheat, swindle'

    These all seem to stem from a root qʷl, 'talk'.

    I'm assuming the Apache comes from Bray (1996)? Because those are the same words I found there. Navajo has biyooch'ííd, and Gwich'in has veets'it.

  13. peter said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    To add support to Language Hat's comments: Would a future archeolinguist, investigating contemporary western society, wonder why we continued to use the words "sunrise" and "sunset"? These words explicitly express a cosmology known for over half a millenium to be inconsistent with empirical evidence. How poor our western scientific education must be that these words continue to be used, not only in everyday speech, but even in technical and formal writing!

  14. Bill Poser said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    I'm well aware that it was the character played by John Wayne to whom the words belong, not John Wayne himself, but since Wayne is much more famous than the character, that's how I identified him. This is actually quite routine in talking about movies.

    The quotations from the Louis L'Amour novel are actually a bit off target since the movie is not based on the book. The movie is actually based on a short story entitled "The Gift of Cochise". The novel is a novelization of the film.

    [(myl) But I don't have access to the movie's script, and I bet that L'Amour's novelization is fairly faithful to the film's story and dialogue. ]

  15. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    I bet he knows the English word for lying…

  16. Bill Poser said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    As for those of you who think that this is a figure of speech, I think you're wrong. I know for a fact that the example I first discussed, that of the alleged lack of a word for "thank you" in aboriginal languages of Canada (falsely inferred from the use of a loan from French) and the false inference from this that their speakers lacked the concept of gratitude, is taken literally by large numbers of Canadians.

    It is possible that sometimes such statements are meant metaphorically, but the problem is that you can't really tell because they very often aren't metaphorical and this is not an established figure of speech. The example of "'failure' isn't in my vocabulary" is very much to the point because it brings out the contrast: that is an established figure of speech so no one takes it literally. Indeed, notice that although the statements are strictly speaking equivalent, if you actually want to say that a person's vocabulary does not include the word 'failure' you would not say it that way. You'd say something like "He doesn't know the word 'failure'." ,

    The fact that there are quite a few examples of this type does not show that it is an established figure of speech. You can find large numbers of examples of all sorts of things that are not figures of speech. That just means they're common.

    I reject the "sunset" argument precisely because it turns on the fact that the expression in question is lexicalized. One would only find an incongruity between the level of scientific knowledge and the use of the terms "sunset" and "sunrise" if one had reason to believe that the people using those terms intended their meanings to include their etymologies. The reason we don't find their use incongruous is because we are aware that their meaning in present day English does not include notions of the sun moving around the earth. Since I don't believe that it is true that the "No word for X" trope has lost its analytic content, it is unlike the "sunset" case.

  17. David said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    @Mark Lieberman
    IIRC, though I've never read a L'Amour western, he once confessed in an interview to have never traveled west of the Mississippi, discussing with some embarrassment a passage involving one of his characters cooking and eating a prairie dog (not knowing at the time that they're the size of squirrels or guinea pigs).

    [(myl) I think that you must be remembering an interview with some other author. Louis L'Amour was born in North Dakota (which itself is west of the Mississippi). According to the Wikipedia entry

    His self-education resulted in academic boredom, so he left school and Jamestown at fifteen after completing the tenth grade. By hitchhiking and riding the rails, he traveled to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to visit an older brother who was the governor's secretary, but he soon moved on. He then found work in West Texas skinning cattle that had died from a prolonged drought. His boss was a seventy-nine-year-old wrangler who had been raised by Apaches, who taught L'Amour about tracking and using herbs. His next job was baling hay in New Mexico's Pecos Valley, across the road from Billy the Kid's grave.


  18. Bill Poser said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    To those who think that we're being excessively picky about this, I would also point out that my point, and I think Mark's as well, has not been primarily that those who say that "Language X has no word for Y" are wrong about the vocabulary of language X. The real linguistic point is that the inference from the lack of a nominal expression for something to the lack of the corresponding concept is invalid, and the real general point is that the inference from a dubious linguistic claim to an even more dubious claim about culture is even more unwise. So this isn't a set of nits about people's knowledge of the vocabulary of Carrier or Halkomelem or Apache or whatever, it's a critique of the very widespread false equation of linguistic expression with concept and of a tendency to make dubious claims about culture, often though not always very damaging claims, on the basis of very flimsy evidence.

  19. Bill Poser said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    Let me be possibly the first academic to admit to having read not one but more than one Louis L'Amour novel. Balzac he isn't, but I've read a lot worse.
    [(myl) You're surely not the first, Bill! For example, the Acknowledgements section of Justin Rudelson's Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism Along China's Silk Road, Columbia University Press, 1997, includes this:

    … I must acknowledge the teachers who in the Confucian tradition of great learning have given me wings and taught me how to be human: Hua-Yuan Li Mowry, Wayne Broehl, Robert Hendricks, Herbert T. Schmidt, Jr., and Louis L'Amour.

    This is apparently meant somewhat literally, since in the Introduction he writes, with respect to his initial research in China in the 1980s:

    THe mentor who guided my research was the writer Louis L'Amour, who had traveled through Xinjiang in the 1930s and whose first novel, about the area, was never completed.

    I believe that Rudelson's book is a revised version of an earlier Harvard University PhD thesis in anthropology; in any case the author appears now to be employed at Dartmouth, after earlier stints at Tulane, JHU and UMd, so he certainly counts as an academic.

    I haven't read nearly all of L'Amour's 100 novels, but I believe that I've probably read a quarter of them. (Checks) There are 22 on my shelf now. I believe that I recall having seen a few in Rich & Sally Thomason's cabin in Montana, as well.]

  20. Tom said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    I was watching "Thuderheart" on AMC last night and it finished up with the gem, "Ain't no word for 'goodbye' in Sioux". Add it to the list.

  21. Bill Poser said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    Carrier has a verb "to lie" with a paradigm like this:

    Singular Dual Plural
    1 xwʌsts'it hots'it ts'ʌxwʌts'it
    2 honts'it xwʌhts'it xwʌhts'it
    3 xwʌts'it hʌxwʌts'it hʌxwʌts'it

    Other verbs based on the same stem include "cheat" and "deceive".

  22. The other Mark P said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    Language is not always used for scientific truth value, as shocking as this may be.

    That some sorts of untruths are common is no reason to accept them.

  23. dr pepper said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    Perhaps this is meta analysis. There are "no word" statements that are metaphors or hyperbole and there are those that are just insular ignorance. For a large number, perhaps the majority, of cases, we know which is which. But someone from a different enough community of discourse might not, and might not have any way of distinguishing except to read the interpretations of each case.

  24. Nick Lamb said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    “The reason we don't find their use incongruous is because we are aware that their meaning in present day English does not include notions of the sun moving around the earth.”

    Yeah, no. It does. You see, all that Copernican stuff, about the Sun being the center of universe? Turns out he was wrong about that. The universe doesn't have a center, especially not in the sense he meant it. Under relativity (the generally accepted model you were taught if you paid attention long enough at school) you have to pick a reference frame to do calculations about moving objects, like a planet orbiting a star. There is no privileged frame, that is, the Sun isn't special. So as observers on the surface of the Earth, it is correct for us to conclude that the Sun moves around the Earth, and thus it rises and sets. Our original naive observations were quite right in what they described, it was only in explaining _why_ that we needed centuries of further thought.

    (I know Language Log likes xkcd, so look at #123 which demonstrates a similar fallacy concerning "centrifugal force". Physics is interesting, like linguistics).

  25. Yoram said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    Happily, missionaries to these various noble folk are exempt from having to translate the ninth commandment.

  26. Mossy said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 4:08 am

    I am coming at this from a different angle, working with Russian and English and Russian and American cultures. When I insist that Russian doesn’t have a word for “fairness,” I mean that the large concept of fairness that includes following rules, equitable distribution of something, consideration, and justice, doesn’t exist as a single word in Russian, or as a concept, or as a code of behavior. But one of the words people keep tossing out as translations is chest’, honor, and that Russian word is much “bigger” than its English equivalent. It involves honesty, obligation, responsibility, making sure that word and deed match, and acting in a way that will not bring shame. In many cases, chest’ trumps rules and laws. It is used in dozens of cases where you’d never use it in English. Chest’ is an unalienable right in the Russian constitution. It is against the law to damage someone’s chest’ and dignity.

    When airplane passengers bring too much luggage on the plane and fill up all the overhead bins, an American might complain that it’s not fair. A Russian would be likely to complain that it’s not honorable. These are not “the same thing.” They are two different codes of behavior. They intersect in a lot of ways, but there are places where they don’t intersect, particularly concerning rules/laws and equitable distribution of things.

    When people start going too far and insist that “it means the same thing” or “of course fairness as a concept exists even if they don’t have a word for it,” it seems to me that what they are really doing is imposing one language and cultural system on another language and cultural system. And the result of that is just as bad as if they went too far in the other direction and made languages and cultures totally separate. It’s just another kind of disaster. When a Russian lets a friend jump in line, Americans condemn him for being “unfair.” When an American won’t let his friend jump in line, Russians condemn him for being “dishonorable.” Well, that’s not a great example, but here’s one: when the whole Clinton-Lewinski thing blew up, I tried to explain to an older Russian woman friend that “it wasn’t the sex, it was the lying.” She was appalled. “Of course he lied! He had to lie! Men shouldn’t talk about that sort of thing!”

    Yes, yes, yes. Expose the nitwits. But please be careful not to encourage another kind of fallacy.

  27. Pat said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    Since you asked, I interpret the L'Amour passage to say that once you lie to the Apache, the negotiations are over and the killing starts. That's probably not what the lieutenant governor of BC means, though.

    Is L'Amour asserting that the concept of deception is actually expressed in a multi-word phrase? Doubtful. Is he asserting that the Apache experience deception so infrequently that they can't even express it? Perhaps, but the passage implies they know they've been lied to and can express it well enough to get the rest of the Apache to go to war. Did he take literally what had once been expressed to him as metaphor and repeat it thusly? In my experience that happens an awful lot.

  28. Brdo said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Having read all the posts on this subject I have to say that I find the whole debate completely absurd. Only someone blinded by academic orthodoxy could fail to see the obvious point – the people in the northern UAE genuinely don't have a word for snow. If they were to google it, or travel fifty kilometers to the nearest library and look it up in an Arabic dictionary (presuming they are literate) they would find out that there is an Arabic word for what they saw falling out of the sky – but before the snow fell they didn't even know it existed, so they "don't have a word for it". The same people can describe different types of camels using many different words, words which are completely unknown to an Arabic speaker living in the mountains of Lebanon. That doesn't mean that they are stupid, or that it isn't possible, using more or less lengthy combinations of other words that they do know, to describe just about anything.

    That is a concrete example. Mossy has given an excellent example of the ways that languages reflect different cultural systems. The dialect of the people in the northern UAE has a common phrase, instantly recognizable by everyone, which describes the praiseworthy act of killing a female relative that one suspects has been, voluntarily or not, in the presence of an unrelated man. What is the English word for that?

  29. peter said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    That Arab-speakers in the northern UAE may have no word for snow leads me to ask LL readers if there is a Bahasa Indonesia word for snow. During Christmas season it is common to see displays featuring artifical snow (along with Santa Claus, fake fir trees, angels, etc) in the windows of Japanese department stores in Jakarta.

  30. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    @ peter: As I mention in this comment, the Indonesian word for "snow" is salju, derived from Arabic thalj. (The Malaysian word salji has the same root.)

  31. Eunoia said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    Of course, if the Cretans had had no word for 'Liar', we would have been spared many logic puzzles ;-)

  32. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    For illustrative purposes here's some snow in Lebanon as I remember from skiing there as a child in the 1960s, and here are some Lebanese-based camels too, though I don't know what kind and how they differ from UAE ones.

  33. Randy said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Supposing a given language didn't have a word for "lying", and supposing this actually said something about the culture, isn't it possible that the reason for the absence of such a word would not be because they value truth so much that they are incapable of lying, but that they find lying (or deception) acceptable?

    Anyone who has watched children grow up has likely observed that we begin lying at an early age. I have two nieces who are, if you will permit me to brag on behalf of my sister, among the most well behaved 7 and 10 year olds I have ever met. Yet I have seen them lie without flinching on a number of occasions. I would find it very hard to believe that this sort of behaviour is specific to people of Western European descent. Parents are also guilty of fibbing to their children every now and then, perhaps with good reason.

    We also put on airs in our daily interactions with each other, say things we don't mean, etc., especially, in my case, when I meet someone for the first time. They're not always outright lies, but they are deceptions, albeit of a mostly benign sort (and perhaps the alternative is a malignant telling of the truth).

    Given that children lie so readily, and that it's so common between adults, if a culture didn't see a need to label that behaviour, it seems more likely to me that it's there, but they don't see it as deviant.

  34. Boris said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    As an immigrant from Russia, I don't think I agree with you about chest'. I think you are a victim of etymological fallacy. While it is true that the equivalent to "not fair" is "ne chestno", it does not mean that the concept is somehow different. The word in its adjective form has two distinct meanings. One of them is "truthful" or "honorable", but the other is simply "fair". That the two cultures (supposedly) have different concepts about what's fair in certain situations, is not the same as Russians having no concept of "fairness", only of "honor". It's no different from the word "fair" itself evolving from a word that meant beautiful. Does that mean that the English (or Americans or any Anglophone cultures) have no concept of fairness and are concerned only with how things appear? I think not.

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 7:10 am

    @brdo: we do now ("honor killing")

  36. John Cowan said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    I would actually find it more plausible that there's no word for "thank you" in some language, in the sense that the phrase is only used in a certain verbal ritual and there is no reason to think that every culture has a counterpart of that ritual. In the same sense, one might say that there is no British English word for "you're welcome", in the sense of a conventional reply to "thank you".

    In the other sense of "welcome", Ivan Derzhanski once complained that there was no conventional English word to use in reply to it, and he felt crippled when being welcomed in English, since he didn't know what to say. Since "welcome" is semantically "it is well that you are come" and in various other languages the counterpart is "it is well that you are found here", I proposed "Welfound".

RSS feed for comments on this post