Ask Language Log: Metaphors for megabytes?

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From Bob Ladd:

I have recently become aware that files that in English are too "big" (for example, to send as email attachments) are too "heavy" in French (lourd) and Italian (pesante). Any chance you can post a note asking for the metaphors in all the other languages that LgLog commenters speak?

Update — Based on the comments, there are several other languages where files can be too "heavy". But what about "long", as in tl;dr? That would be another natural metaphor, either in the spatial or the temporal sense.



44 Comments

  1. Rachael said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

    Very interesting – so, when we talk about file size (say, in a directory listing), do they talk about file weight? And what do they call compression tools (since compressing a physical object makes it smaller, but not lighter)?

  2. David L said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:18 pm

    In British English, files are too massive. In American English, too loud.

  3. Chris said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    Hmm, David L, I haven't heard "too loud" in AmEng for a file that exceeds size limits for a particular function. I've certainly heard "noisy" to refer to data that contains bad data, or data unrelated to a particular analysis.

  4. Berna said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

    In Dutch, files are too big (te groot).

  5. Thor said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

    In Swedish its commonly "too big" (för stor), as well.

  6. Sergey said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

    In Russian the files are big in the "correct" language but often are called heavy colloquially. Though I guess if a file is too big, it would be slightly more likely called too big, not too heavy, even colloquially. The heavy metaphor is usually used for telling the size, i.e. "this file weighs ten megabytes".

  7. Vladimir said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    Also in Russian we often use "meters" instead of "megabytes", so saying "this file weights ten meters" is very common and I hear it almost every day.

  8. Ken said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    Related: In Japanese, when a video stream/online multiplayer game is lagging, they say it is 重い (heavy).

  9. David Marjanović said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 6:10 pm

    "Too big" in German, no weight metaphor anywhere in sight.

  10. Paul Kay said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 11:10 pm

    Wow, this variation is fascinating. According to the theory of metaphor primarily proposed by George Lakoff it shows that, for example, English and German speakers conceptualize files in one way and French and Japanese speakers conceptualize files in another, different, way, a view that also agrees with a popular species of Whorfianism. I've never been able to convince myself that such doctrines are empirically sound. In this regard, Vladimir's note that Russians are perfectly happy to say, "This file weighs ten meters," insouciantly confounding weight and length metaphors, stands out. I'm reminded that although respected researchers have claimed to show that seemingly purely grammatical "sex" gender in languages such as French does in fact convey male/female meaning, my Hachette French dictionary says on the back cover, "Le Dictionnaire du Français," and directly underneath, "Le dictionnaire de la langue française." It's unarguable that those two noun phrases don't differ in reference. If they differ in sense, I can't think it's by very much.

  11. Steven Marzuola said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

    In Latin American Spanish, in reference materials, files are usually "big" (possibly because the sources for those references are translations from US English). But verbally and in casual writing, files are "heavy".

  12. Pau Amma said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 11:48 pm

    I've never heard "trop lourd" to describe files in French. (Native speaker of the Parisian dialect.) What I've heard is "trop gros" (too big/large).

    [(myl) From the web:
    [link] Comment envoyer un fichier trop lourd pour le courriel?
    [link] Certains fichiers sont trop lourds pour être envoyés par e-mail.
    [link] Une taille de fichier trop importante peut provenir de différentes sources: des images ayant un poids trop lourd, le format de fichier…

    Also trop volumineux seems to be Out There.]

  13. MichaelHB said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 7:05 am

    Youtubeが重い (youtube ga omoi / youtube is heavy)
    Youtubeが遅い (youtube ga osoi / youtube is slow)

    Both of the above are used in Japanese to describe lag on, for example, youtube.

    ファイルが大き過ぎる (fairu ga ookisugiru / the file is too big)
    ファイルが重過ぎる (fairu ga omosugiru / the file is too heavy)

    Likewise, both of these are used to describe files that can't be sent via email.

    My guess is that these metaphors were borrowed into Japanese, and one hasn't 'won out' yet. So, for now, perhaps some Japanese speakers conceptualize files' "physical characteristics" differently than other Japanese speakers?

  14. 번하드 said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 7:38 am

    @David Marjanović:

    this is funny. in my parts (maybe a Bavaria thing), saying 'this file is (too/really) thick/fat' is not unusual at all. But 'big/long' sounds more official.

  15. Kimball Kramer said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 8:04 am

    In American we say, for example, 15 is bigger than 14, etc. I think perhaps the file size usage comes from our usage with numbers, since we measure file size in number of bytes. Does any language say 15 is heavier than 14? If one say, in a particular language, 15 is bigger than 14, but also says a 15GB file is heavier than a 14GB file, that would be curious since GB is not a measure of weight, but a counting measure.

  16. Doug said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 8:31 am

    On a similar note, in some languages, like Greek, a meeting that takes a lot of time is most commonly described not as "a long meeting" but as "a big meeting."

    http://www.casasanto.com/papers/Casasanto_2004_CogSci_TimeEstimation.pdf

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 8:56 am

    @Paul Kay, MichaelHB: Further in favour of your skeptical take on Whorfianism is the fact that we have conflicting testimony here from speakers of both French and German. I think MichaelHB has the right approach: both metaphors are floating around and neither yet seems to have won out. That suggests that how speakers conceptualise things is only marginally relevant, and that this is just a matter of normal competition between forms when new things and new concepts come along. Once the competition is settled and one of the competing variants wins, then somebody can come along and create a Whorfian story, but if the history is just a case of normal variation, it casts doubt on any such story.
    Nevertheless, it probably proves something that most of the comments above suggest that the Germanic languages are leaning toward "big" and the Romance languages are leaning toward "heavy".

  18. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 9:03 am

    @MYL: The last of the examples you added to Pau Amma's comment is great, because in the same sentence (but not the same clause) it uses both the size metaphor (une taille de fichier trop important) and the weight metaphor (un poids trop lourd).
    BTW aficionados of metaphor who are not especially familiar with French may also enjoy the use of important to mean "big", which is completely normal in French and not unknown in other Romance languages.

  19. bks said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    We had problems with users dragging and dropping immense files from one file system to another, duplicating the space used, so I proposed fitting the interface with a haptic system such that it required force proportional to the weight of the file to move the mouse.

  20. Yakusa Cobb said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    @ Bob Ladd: *trop importante*
    @ Pau Amma: And of course there is the verb 'peser' (literally to weigh) as in 'le fichier pèse 5Go', which is probably best translated as 'the file is 5Gb'

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    @Yakusa Cobb: I miss the preview function.

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 11:08 am

    I just whiled away an hour or two trying to get a sense of what Google thinks of all this. I looked at Catalan, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. It seems pretty clear that there are effects of written style: e.g. "large files" is far more common on Google than "big files", though I doubt that is a very accurate reflection of ordinary English spoken usage. (Another example: the first hit for "dicke Dateien" (German for "fat files") has scare quotes around "dicke", suggesting that the writer felt this to be informal or colloquial.) It appears that in all these languages the "big" metaphor is more formal or official than the "heavy" metaphor, and the differences between languages lie in how widespread the competing metaphor is. Roughly speaking, the "heavy" metaphor seems to be pretty widespread in French, Italian, and Spanish, somewhat used in Dutch, German, and Portuguese, and fairly rare in Catalan, English, and Romanian.

    One complication is further competition between "heavy" and "fat", and the fact that words for "fat" don't match up especially well across these languages. German seems to be the only language of the sample where "fat" is a serious contender, but Ger. dick also means "thick", which might suggest an old-fashioned paper file folder. In French and Italian, gros/grosso means "big", but with overtones in the direction of "fat" which are lacking in grand/grande, and both seem to be used to refer to file size about as often as lourd/pesante. The cognates grosso/grueso in Portuguese and Spanish don't seem to be used to talk about computer files at all.

  23. Sergey said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

    To answer some questions, Ive witnessed the birth of the "heavy" metaphor in Russian in the early 1990s. It started as a joke, and then spread because it sounded unusual and cool and funny. Personally I've never heard the "weighing ten meters" phrase (probably I haven't been that much in touch with Russia in the recent years) but it's the same king of word-play joke: "megabytes" get commonly shortened to "megs" which would be replaced with "meters" because it sounds similar, and is a funny replacement that confuses two kinds of functionally similar things (measures) from different areas. There are plenty of words in Russian colloquial speech that came into existence this way.

    So for Russian it's nothing about any inherent way of thinking of the measures. It's all about humor, and puns, and intricate flowery speech, and the intentional introduction of confusion that the listener is supposed to figure out and appreciate the joke.

  24. Linda Seebach said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    If I spent an hour or two poking around Google on a fairly limited topic, I would expect that the results of later searches would reflect what I had recently clicked on earlier in that Google session. Is it possible that people who start by looking for "heavy" in relation to computer files will get different results than people who start by looking for "big" ?

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    @Linda Seebach: Possible, but remember I was searching for things like "schwere Dateien" and arquivo "muito grande". I suppose it's possible that Google recognised that these were all basically the same query coming from the same computer, but (for example) it didn't start giving me results in multiple languages. In all the various languages it regularly offered me search terms relating to sending and storing large files, but I never clicked on any of them.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

    In languages where files can be "heavy", do storage media need to be "strong"?

  27. Paul Kay said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    @MichaelHB and Bob Ladd: What's more, I don't think there is always a point at which such a competition is settled. It seems that conflicting metaphors over the same ground can coexist indefinitely within a language. For example, when we talk of the preceding month and the following month, the ground image seems to be that we are standing still and the months are marching toward us single file; so that if my birthday was in July, the preceding month was June and the following month was August. But when we talk of last month and next month, the ground image seems to be that the months line a path along which we travel, so that if this month is July, next month is August and last month is June. If you force these images to confront one another it may sound a little funny: the next month was the following month (August) and the last month was the preceding month (June). But of course we don't normally do this.

  28. random lurker said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

    This is tangentially related but another thing I've noticed in Japanese is in describing somebody was close to the right answer (in quiz shows or whatever), the word 惜しい (oshii, "regrettable") is used rather than 近い (chikai, "close") as a reaction, whereas in most Western languages you'd say something to the effect of "ooh, you were so close".

    I've poured over countless Japanese learning materials and dictionaries and I feel like differences like these are often glossed over or not even noticed by the authors in the first place. Much like omoi/osoi describing the sluggishness of a website, it's a dead giveaway that you're not a native speaker.

    Another example would be the fact that most E->J dictionaries translate "caveman" as 穴居人 (kekkyojin) where natives would commonly refer to the same as 原始人 (genshijin, "primitive man"), especially when talking about cartoonish caricatures. But only 1/4 of my dictionaries even make note of that.

  29. Paolo said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 5:27 pm

    I'd say that in Italian the "heavy" metaphor is very common especially for attachments, images and photos (allegati, immagini, foto pesanti), slightly less so for files, possibly because we borrowed the English word so it is harder to think of a visual metaphor and associate a file to a real world object.
    Files can be grandi (preferred), grossi or pesanti.

  30. Yuval said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 7:14 pm

    Hebrew's in the "big" crowd: /gadol miday/ גדול מדי.

  31. Axel said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 9:31 pm

    @Bob: Regarding the German translation for "big" in this context, the regular used word is "groß" (-> large). Additionally, the standard translation for "file size" is "DateiGRÖßE" (Google: about 8,830,000 results), rarely "DateiGEWICHT" (about 1,140 results).

    (Google: "Datei zu groß" -> about 128,000 results, "Datei zu schwer" -> 9 results, "Datei zu fett" -> 10 results / "zu große Datei" -> about 19,300 results, "zu schwere Datei" -> 4 results, "zu fette Datei" -> 4 results)

    As a native speaker, the "heavy" metaphor sounds totally strange to me when characterizing a computer file. I agree with what was already mentioned that it's the abstract number (like 20 GB) and the comparison with a parameter ("too large/big") that explains the use of "groß".

    You normally use "groß" for "big" for a concrete geometric property (length, size, height, volume) but also when describing an abstract characteristic [important, great] ("too big to fail" -> "zu groß, um zu scheitern", "big news" -> "große/wichtige Neuigkeiten").

    "Schwer" for "big" is used for a concrete weight property but also when describing the abstract difficulty of a task. In this case, "schwer" and the opposite "leicht" mean "difficult" and "easy" insteat of "heavy" and "light".

  32. Quim said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 4:42 am

    In Catalan, "big" wins big league over "heavy", but files that "weigh a lot" are not uncommon. So, not very different from French. I'd say it is the same in Spanish, at least in the variety heard in and around Barcelona.

  33. ajay said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

    On a similar note, we talk about internet connections being narrow/thin or broad/fat – are there any languages where they use, say, depth instead of width as the measure?

    (the English use is no doubt carried over from the idea of radio bandwidth, which determines the amount of data that can be transferred per second).

  34. BZ said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

    Wow, the things you learn about your former home language (Russian). Now I'm wondering what the actual Russian phrase for "heavy files" and "weighing 10 meters" might be.

  35. Mike K said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

    I concur with Yuval on Hebrew, but I can find some online attestation for "heavy" as well. I think in many languages it's a valid alternative. I'd only have a very small "weird" feeling if someone said "קובץ כבד" (heavy file), but the English equivalent would give me a stronger "weird" feeling.

  36. Bob Michael said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 11:16 pm

    As a speaker of English, one metaphor I've taken for granted is referring to high-frequency tones as "high" notes, low tones as "low". I wonder if other languages use a different metaphor? Light vs heavy? Sharp vs dull?

  37. R. Fenwick said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 11:36 pm

    @MichaelHB:

    Youtubeが重い (youtube ga omoi / youtube is heavy)
    Youtubeが遅い (youtube ga osoi / youtube is slow)

    In Ubykh the same word, gʲənt'qʷ'a, is used to describe both concepts:

    asəwʤawtən agʲənt'qʷ'a "he is heavy for me to carry"
    ʁatʷ'adạjəʤʁʲa agʲənt'qʷ'a "he is slow to bring it back"

    I can't speak for the application to digital files – Ubykh's last fully competent heritage speaker died before computers really became a big thing – but the semantic association between "heavy" and "slow" is deep enough that, absent other evidence, I don't think there's any need to suggest Japanese borrowed the metaphors from some other language.

  38. Peter Erwin said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 6:21 am

    But what about "long", as in tl;dr? That would be another natural metaphor, either in the spatial or the temporal sense.

    I don't think that "long" is as natural a metaphor (at least in English). The spatial sense requires that you conceive of files as strings of bits (and/or sequences of magnetic states in a storage medium), which most people don't normally do. And while length would make sense for temporal duration of sound or video files (or of reading text files and books), it doesn't work for things like images. (And there's the problem of different kinds of media files not mapping to temporal length consistently: a heavily compressed 2-hour movie in SD format will be longer in duration than a half-hour video in 4K format, but will be much smaller in number of bits.)

    It's true that when transmitting files, file size translates into temporal length, but that's not relevant for issues of files taking up storage space (e.g., "will this file fit on my USB stick?").

  39. Thomas Shaw said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 11:06 am

    I think I've heard "heavy" for file size in english, though as a creative usage, not a routine one. I'd also be curious about how other languages refer to "bloat".

    Bob Michael:
    In Turkish, high-pitch is ince (/ind̠ʒe/, "thin"), and low-pitch is kalın (/kalɯn/, "thick"). Meanwhile, loud is often yüksek (/jyksek/, "high"), at least in the context of music, though it can be other things… not sure if there's a corresponding "low" that means quiet.

  40. rpsms said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

    "youtube is heavy" refers to "server load," and refers to concurrent demand (rather than file sizes). Different concept.

  41. Andy said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

    In Czech, files are příliš velké (too big).

    @Bob Michael: In Ancient Greek, ὀξύς (literally 'sharp') is used for high-pitched sounds,
    βαρύς ('heavy') for low-pitched ones. (And similarly the Latin terms acutus and gravis.)

  42. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 29, 2017 @ 3:50 am

    On the sonic tangent, in Swedish hög "high" in reference to sound can mean either loud or high-pitched, and låg "low" similarly quiet or low-pitched.

    A computer file is AFAIK always stor "big", never any variant of heavy or thick. If someone spoke of a tjock fil "fat file" I'd likely assume they were talking about a physical binder, or at least had that metaphor consciously in mind.

  43. Alon said,

    December 3, 2017 @ 5:56 am

    @Bob Ladd: The cognates grosso/grueso in Portuguese and Spanish don't seem to be used to talk about computer files at all.

    At least in Spanish, that's because grueso can be used to mean 'fat' (thought that usage's dated, if not outright obsolete), but never 'heavy', which is invariably pesado.

  44. Quim said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    I just received a student assignment which refers to files "ordenats numèricament per tamany, de més pesat a menys" which literally means "ordered numerically [sic] by size, from the heaviest to the lightest". Ie, both metaphors in the same sentence, or maybe this person identifies "size" and "weight"…

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