No word for dyslexia in languages with good spelling systems

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The opinion section of The Guardian is blessed with the name "Comment Is Free", and sometimes what they publish is worth every penny of that. Long-time Language Log readers will recall that we have often said here before that whenever someone says that the X people have no word for Y in their language you should put your hand on your wallet — to make sure it's still there. The people who witter on about who has a word for what hardly ever even know the languages they are talking about, and in the vast majority of cases (check out some of the cases on this list) their claim is false. At this page you can read an editorial about spelling reform saying that "phonetic languages like Italian and, apparently, Finnish not only have no problem with dyslexia, they don't even have a word for it." I find it almost unbelievable that people imagine they can continue to get away with printing flamingly obvious drivel about language in major newspapers. They always assume that since there are no linguistic scientists and no cross-linguistic dictionaries or encyclopedias, no one will check on them. The multiple genetically-linked effects of dyslexia don't go away if you alter the orthography. And to set the record straight: The Italian word for dyslexia is dislessia. Finnish has three words for it, two native and one borrowed: dysleksia is the borrowed one, and the others are lukivaikeus (literally "reading-difficulty"), lukihäiriö (literally "reading-writing-disturbance": lu is the first syllable of the stem meaning "read", ki is the first syllable of the stem meaning "write", and they have been collapsed to coin this word).

The Finnish word dysleksia, gets about 57,000 Google hits, and there is an article on dyslexia in the Finnish Wikipedia, so it's not like nobody in a newspaper editorial office could have found this out. The trouble is that they didn't do even thirty seconds of research on this.

Ironically, it happens that a team of scientists led by the Finnish molecular geneticist Juha Kere were responsible for a major breakthrough in 2005 uncovering a genetic cause for one kind of dyslexia, a modification of the gene ROBO1 (see the Wikipedia article on that gene, and this page for considerably more detail). The study was based on a Finnish case of severe dyslexia. So much for there being no problem with dyslexia in Finland because of their nice tidy orthography.

I am sure I have said this before, but here I am saying it again, for the Guardian's editors to hear: you just cannot exaggerate the stupidity of the brigade of morons who carry on the "things they don't have words for" trope. (I should add that I hope it's stupidity. It may be worse than that: mere bullshit, written by sophisticated people who know they haven't looked for the relevant facts but couldn't care less. An email correspondent pointed out to me that if you follow the Guardian's link on "it is claimed" you get to a report by the Spelling Society with no references, and it says nothing whatever about Italian or Finnish or words for dyslexia.)

[My Italian informant was the bilingualism expert Professor Antonella Sorace of Edinburgh; my Finnish informant was the computational linguist Professor Fred Karlsson of Helsinki. Thanks to both of them, and to Jeremy Wheeler in Budapest who sent me the link to the Guardian editorial. Comments are closed because I looked at the 150+ comments below the Guardian editorial and felt sick. In fact I lost quite a bit of my will to live. Send mail to mail2languagelog at with useful and interesting comments or observations that will help me get it back.]

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