It's baaack . . . and upside-down!

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There's a new sighting of the  well-worn "There's no word for accountability in X" snowclone, which we first noticed back in 2006 ("Solving the World's Problems with Linguistics"), and picked up again just about a year ago ("Annals of 'No word for X'"). The usual function of this rhetorical trope, as documented in those posts, is to explain why bankers/business-executives/bureaucrats from a wide range of non-Anglophone counties, from Angola to Iceland, are so feckless — they simply can't understand the concept of accountability, poor things, since their language lacks the word.  The cultural assumptions are probably no more true than the linguistic ones,  of course — my impression is that in actual fact, Anglophone bankers etc. can give the rest of the world a substantial fecklessness handicap and still win going away. I mean, did Silvio Berlusconi ever misplace 1.2 billion dollars of someone else's money, as a certain American ex-Senator recently did? But I digress.

Anyhow, the latest example turns the trope on its head, and uses it to explain why Finnish schools are so well managed.

Anu Partanen, "What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success", The Atlantic 12/29/2011:

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg* shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.

*Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility.

Reader S.B., who sent in the link, is puzzled:

I'm mostly confused by this because a quick trip to reveals that vastuullisuus, vastuu, and vastuuvelvollisuus all can mean "accountability" in one form or another. Even more confusing is the person (Pasi Sahlberg) who uttered the quote attended a Finnish school as a youngster, and the journalist who wrote the article (Anu Partanen) is clearly Finnish. It seems like it's just a case of "Language X has no word for Y", but since two people responsible for spreading this (mis)information are probably fluent Finnish speakers, I'm wildly confused.

I'm not competent to comment on Finnish lexicograpy, but I imagine that as usual,  a short phrase would do the trick if no single word will do. Perhaps some Finnish readers can explain.


  1. Sili said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

    We have a word for accountability in Denmark, and we standardised tests for leaving school and high school.

    Of course, Sweden most likely have the exact same word, and they don't (to my great surprise – we used to be told that the apparent difference in aptitude was due to a more finely graded marking scale, so we switched to the EU one (not that we could do that without first making it unnecessarily complicated)).

  2. Brian said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

    I wonder if this isn't more closely related to the pattern of people peeving about managerial language, just with a cross-language angle mixed in. For example, I could imagine a hypothetical world where one of our widely hated business-speak terms, say "action item", was actually a borrowing from the Finnish language. One could then imagine some peever declaring "There's no word for toimierä in English! When there's something that needs to be done, we don't talk about it, we just do it!"

  3. Steve Kass said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 12:16 am

    Here is what Sahlberg might have said:

    Interestingly, the success of Finnish students notwithstanding, there is no word in Finnish for accountability in an educational context.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 12:32 am

    Sounds like a total trope, one that could have omitted the reference to Finnish entirely. One thinks of Yoda. "Do or do not. There is no try."

  5. Duncan said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 12:46 am

    I don't have any Finnish knowledge or experience and only really speak English (other than a few words here or there of other languages, thus the "really"), but did spend some time in East Africa (around multiple languages) and have been around (American) Spanish or Navajo first-language speakers for much of my life since then as well, so perhaps I can attempt to generalize an interpretation from that, and hope both that it's correct and that I can properly convey it.

    I take Sahlberg's comment to be more about the practical meaning of the English (externally imposed) "accountability" (as opposed to "personal responsibility" as both a society expectation and an internalized personal value) than about the existence (or not) of a Finnish word.

    "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

    He's saying that as often used in practice (and this itself could be an item of keen discussion here on LL), the English term "accountability" is effectively what, say, might be dealt out in the form of a 20-year sentence for a crime, when the person found guilty didn't have enough "respect" for themselves and society to prevent them from doing the act in the first place. "Accountability", being "held accountable", is losing your job when you decide to go on a New Year's drinking binge that last late into the evening on the first, even when you knew you were scheduled for work on the second, then tried to call in sick due to the hangover.

    The contrast is with responsibility, or the word I might have used, respect, definitely self-responsibility/self-respect, but more than that, a society that expects and demands that of its own citizens, vs. one that… apparently… doesn't.

    So rather than saying that there's no word for "accountability", he's saying there's no word for "accountability". (See the recent LL articles on the Zits and Stone Soup comic strips and how altering how one says the word affects meaning, particularly when repeated, first with negation, then without). There's no word for "accountability"… stripped of the implied (self and society) responsibility/respect, so that it's entirely externally imposed, and people feel free to do what they want… and even argue that they shouldn't be held accountable afterward due to whatever individual mitigating circumstances.

    But he's not arguing that there's literally no word for it, but rather, arguing metaphorically, that the concept of accountability without personal and society responsibility isn't found in the Finnish culture to any large degree; he's arguing that in Finnish culture, there's an assumption about personal responsibility… which in turn involves treating the individual /as/ a human being worthy of respect, decent pay, basic health insurance as a human right, etc… It's that social bargain that he's saying is wrapped up in the concept of "accountability" found in the words they use, that has (in his observation/opinion) been stripped from the concept, at least as the word is used in practice, in English.

    Thus, there's no word for "accountability" as used in practice in English, where (as he sees it) it has been stripped of the meaning inherent in the Finnish word(s), which assume mutual personal/society responsibility and respect.

    That's how I'd interpret what he is quoted as saying, particularly in the context of that second sentence in the quote. I hope I've properly represented both my thoughts as to his meaning, AND his intent; that is, I hope both that my understanding of his intent (based on my own experience with ESL speakers) is accurate, AND that I have clearly conveyed that understanding here.

    Of course, I'd be interested in further articles exploring whether this observed usage of "accountability minus responsibility" is indeed as widespread as he seems to indicate (and I must say I tend to agree, gut feeling only), or not. Unfortunately, it's a nuance I'm not sure can be quantified, but perhaps our most excellent LL bloggers and/or the audience can chip in some ideas on the subject. =:^)


  6. A said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    From another Finn: I think this might be a case of trying to sound exotic and make an "interesting" point which sticks to the minds of the audience. Sounds like a stupid thing for anyone with fluent Finnish skills to say, otherwise.

  7. Sally said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    No need to speculate. In the article cited by Steve Kass he defines exactly which concept of accountability it is that he says doesn't exist in Finland:

    The North American educational system abounds with buzzwords like accountability. As Sahlberg explained, the concept of accountability came into education in the 1970s. “Previously,” he said, “accountability was used solely in a business context, but governments increasingly began applying it to education, and the result was the rise of standardized tests and other measures that held education accountable. Accountability is about making information public—ranking schools or provinces or teachers.” And it is based on the belief “that competition is the answer to any problems in schools.”

    So this is a very specific kind of "accountability" that didn't exist in the US before the authorities introduced it in the 1970s. He shouldn't have used the Abominable Snowclone to make this point. Or he could have said, "there's no buzzword for…"

  8. nappi said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 2:06 am is not an official dictionary. It's rather like a wiki. I think the translations for accountability were added just so you could have some idea what the term means. But they might be more like translations for the word responsibility.

    Googling for the difference between accountability and responsibility I found this: "For example, an employee is responsible for certain tasks in his job, and he is accountable to his supervisor."
    I have hard time saying the latter part in Finnish. I think it is because "vastuu" (responsibility) already has a component of accountability in it. Vastuu is close to "vastata", which means "to answer". So if you are responsible for X, in Finnish you are the person who answers when something is questioned about X. If you are responsible for something, you are accountable to everyone about that. I don't think you can say that you are accountable to just certain people using one word. If it is not clear from the context that you shouldn't question about something then the other person will just have to decline answering and explain why.

    I think it would be approriate to say that there isn't two distinct words for responsibility and accountability, but one word which may or may not fulfill both definitions depending on the context.

  9. C Thornett said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 2:25 am

    All too often 'accountability' in education is defined as creating an exhaustive (and exhausting) paper trail of everything done in the classroom to prove that teachers, who seem to be regarded as uniquely untrustworthy and incompetent, are actually teaching and not just spending their classroom hours on facebook.* Bad tests (there are good) are regarded as better measures of progress than good teachers and inspectors who have not taught languages as more expert than experienced language teachers.

    But 'no word for…' has gone beyond a snowclone to become a cliché.

    *Does this lack of trust tell us something about the groups who demand accountability of teachers but not of themselves?

  10. RP said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 4:12 am

    @Spell Me Jeff,

    In a similar vein, when I was about 12 our Head of Year insisted (to an assembly of hundreds of pupils) that there was "no such word as 'can't'" (she did not comment on whether there was such a word as "cannot"), and by way of purported evidence, she stated that the word "can't" isn't found in any dictionary, and that if anyone could find any dictionary in which it occurred she would give them a Mars bar.

    I went home and immediately found (as I had expected) three or more dictionaries in which the word "can't" appeared, and told her so. She then said that the promised Mars bar was just a figure of speech and that it was against school policy to give out Mars bars.

  11. Keith Devlin said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    I work with the Finnish education system, and Sahlberg (whom I have not yet met) is speaking at a Finland-Stanford education summit I am organizing here at Stanford later this month. I am sure he was speaking figuratively, just as here in Palo Alto pretty well everyone says regularly "There is no word for failure in Silicon Valley", often going on to elaborate as "There are just learning experiences." Come on guys, this kind of language use is rampant. You hear it from educators, athletic coaches, business leaders, politicians.

    [(myl) When an English-speaker says to an English-speaking audience "There's no word for failure in Silicon Valley", everyone knows (s)he's using a hyperbolic figure of speech. But if you read the many examples of NGO dignitaries, World Bank officials, etc., telling Anglophone audiences that "There's no word for accountability in Russian/Bemba/Tagalog/Italian/whatever", you get a very different impression. The audiences — and maybe the speakers — are really thinking through the idea that the poor Russians/Zambians/Filipinos/Italians/whatevers are handicapped by a fatal lexical/cultural/conceptual vacuum where the concept of accountability should be.

    I have no idea what the NYT's readers make of Sahlberg's little apothegm. But there are certainly not very many of them with enough knowledge of Finnish — or linguistics — to avoid the casual neo-Whorfian stance that modern Americans enjoy so much.]

  12. Keith Devlin said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 4:41 am

    Sahlberg's intended meaning is clear when you read on in the quoted report. He went on to say, "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted." That, to my mind, really nails the key distinction between Finland's education system (and their society in general) and that of the US.

  13. Joel Kaasinen said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 5:39 am

    Hi, native Finnish speaker here!

    The word "vastuu" translates most accurately as "responsibility" (see e.g. ). The word does have the second meaning of liability which is close to, but not quite, accountability. In most contexts I would translate the word accountability as vastuu. However, I'm not sure what I would do with a segment contrasting responsibility and accountability…

    I think I could stand behind the assertion "Finland does not have separate words for accountability and responsibility".

  14. Nick Lamb said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 5:54 am

    RP, your school sucked. My primary school sometimes sent a 10 or 11 year old (obviously they picked one with a reputation for being sensible) to a corner store to buy chocolate bars. The bars would be divided, and the class asked questions about the division of the bar as practical demonstrations of fractions. e.g. "This is a quarter of the bar, and I've just cut it in half, so how much do I have now?" with the reward for correct answers being the relevant piece of chocolate. I remember such lessons being delicious.

    If the teachers who tried to get me to learn indefinite integrals had found some way to involve candy I'd be a Math PhD by now instead of a lowly Computer Scientist.

  15. Tanja said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 6:12 am

    "Vastuuvelvollisuus" is a pretty good match in Finnish as it means responsibility with an external obligation. However, it's not really used in educational contexts except in translation. In a quick Google search, I only found translated examples or examples from private schools.

  16. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 6:39 am

    "no word for X" seems to be about as logical as "could care less". I think it's just become a shortcut for "we abhor the very idea of X". we probably shouldn't fret about whether it is factually true about the language in question.

  17. Joe said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 6:54 am

    I think "tilivelvollisuus" is another word that comes pretty close to "accountability" (perhaps with more of emphasis on financial bookkeeping), and one that Sahlberg himself seems to use a lot in this context. Unlike others, I think he is intentionally playing on the gullibility of his audience, but gives himself enough room to wiggle out of it if challenged.

  18. Leonardo Herrera said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 7:25 am

    Well, in Spanish there isn't a direct translation for accountability, either. I can see the effects of that at least in my country – people is quite lax about their responsabilities because they feel petty offenses aren't really accountable.

    In Spanish, "held accountable" can be translated as "ser responsable de sus actos" but still doesn't convey the meaning of "paying back" if you don't. There is a translation of this final "paying" act, thought – "saldar cuentas," which means "paying your debts."

    If you want to ask something of somebody and let the person know that he/she will be held accountable of it, you must be very specific (as in, "do this, or else.")

    On the other hand, while I do think this particular lack of a feature in our language clearly influences our culture, it's effects are not broad and are mostly present in small or perceivedly unimportant things. When your responsabities are larger, accountability is usually implied.

  19. mollymooly said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 8:09 am

    Pasi Sahlberg is a NNS of English, so perhaps he simply expressed himself poorly. Maybe 'there is no word in Finnish for accountability in an educational context' was intended to mean "The Finnish education system does not make use of the concept of accountability".

    [(myl) That's what he meant, of course. One problem with phrasing it as "there's no word for accountability in Finnish" is that it he risks creating an inappropriate sort of neo-Whorfian pessimism in his readers/listeners: "Damn, those lucky Finns with their innocent accountability-free language. How can we ever un-eat the apple and regain that unaccountable educational Eden?"]

  20. Jouni Seppänen said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    I'm a native Finnish speaker, and I just want to say that "vastuuvelvollisuus" sounds like the most terrible kind of bureaucratese. I guess it is supposed to mean "duty to be responsible", and the top Google hits are for dictionary pages claiming it means "liability", one hard-to-follow text about how humans are responsible to some flavor of god, some pages about accounting and insurance regulations, and several pages where the constituent words "vastuu" and "velvollisuus" (responsility and duty) occur in sequence.

  21. Philip said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    Off-topic, I know, but a major difference between Finnish society and its educational system and public education in the US is that in Finland, the childhood poverty rate is around four percent. In the US, it's getting close to 25 percent. One child in four in our country lives below the poverty line–which is artificially low, less than $22K for a family of four.

    On second thought, maybe I'm not off-topic: Where's the accountability for this economic horrorshow? We've got a perfectly good word, so why not apply it?

    According to Stephen Krashen, US public schools for middle-class kids (schools with fewer than ten percent of students receiving free lunches) are among the top performers in the world.

  22. Dan Hemmens said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    "no word for X" seems to be about as logical as "could care less".

    But "could care less" is perfectly logical and (arguably) more strictly factual than "couldn't care less".

    I think that, as myl has pointed out, there's an implicit factual claim in statements of the kind "X language doesn't have a word for Y" that isn't implicit in similar English-only statements like "don't know the meaning of the word failure" or "no such word as can't".

  23. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    According to what the native speakers are saying, it seems true that Finnish has no word for accountability, at least when contrasted with responsibility.
    Languages don't always have words for all the same abstract concepts. As for the idea that the Finnish lack the concept, I find that when I learn a word which differentiates between two closely related abstract ideas, it does help solidify the difference between the two in my mind and eases expression, although of course the difference can be expressed other ways. Anyway, I think the factual part of the claim is the absence of an exact match for accountability in Finnish, and the part about that having an actual effect on the performance of Finnish schools is just rhetoric.

  24. Joe said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    @ Joe Rembetikoff,

    I'm not a native speaker, but I think you can make an argument that "tilivelvollisuus" could be a rough equivalent to "accountability" and "vastuullisuus" an equivalent to "responsibility," depending on the context. As I say upthread, Sahlberg himself uses the word "tilivelvollisuus" when talking about the accountability movement in education.

  25. David Fried said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

    I think something rather odd emerges from this discussion, especially the remarks of the native Finnish speakers–in fact, there is no Finnish word for "accountability"! Sahlberg turns out to have a sensitive ear for the difference between the English word "accountability" as a piece of educational/managerial jargon, and the nearest Finnish equivalents, which are still firmly located in the realm of everyday moral discourse.

    Duncan has, to my mind, correctly picked up on the nasty/smarmy character of "accountability" in the mouths of the HR folks. I am an employment lawyer, and "holding someone accountable" commonly means firing an older and more highly-paid employee with 20 years' service on a pretext, so as do do him or her out of severance pay and, if at all possible, unemployment benefits. The trick, which some HR departments have down pat, is to choose an offense which is simultaneously trivial and "indefensible"–that is, capable of being jammed under a category like "lying," "stealing," or "drawing the organization into disrepute."

    So when a responsible (in the Finnish sense) employee, working 60 hours a week and being paid for 40, plays hookey on a Friday afternoon, he is "stealing time" and must be "held accountable." I have learned from hard experience that "you've got to be kidding me" generally triggers a flood of self-righteous indignation ("are you saying we should tolerate stealing among our employees?") followed without a pause by a reminder that "Joe is an at-will employee, so we can fire him for any reason or none." At this point I always want to say "hob a bisl rachmones," because, of course, there is no English word for "rachmones," still less for holding someone accountable for lacking rachmones.

  26. David Fried said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

    Back on topic–Leonardo, I'm not a native Spanish speaker, but I have never heard anyone say "el es responsable" (he is responsible), but always :el es el responsable," meaning literally "he is the person responsible," but to my ear "he is the person to look to if blame is to be cast," i.e., "he is accountable"! Does this sound right to you?

  27. Jason Cullen said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

    Is he really arguing for the lack of a word, or is he just saying that the American connotations of the word (and the American world view with it) aren't translated well into Finnish?

  28. the other Mark P said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

    Jouni Seppänen said,

    I'm a native Finnish speaker, and I just want to say that "vastuuvelvollisuus" sounds like the most terrible kind of bureaucratese.

    As is "accountability" in an educational sense, when intended to mean something other than the traditional responsibility of a teacher. So no problem there.

  29. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 2:07 am

    @David: It can be either. The DRAE lists it as an adjective and a noun in varying uses and both of y'all's uses are perfectly acceptable, though recall that after ser, oftentimes the article is omitted, especially with jobs (cf. él es [el] médico).

    A great way to differentiate the two meanings in Spanish is by changing between the infinitive and a subordinate clause in subjunctive:
    El empleado es responsable de barrer el suelo. (responsible for sweeping)
    El jefe es responsable de que el suelo se barra. (accountable for sweeping)

  30. Boursin said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    the other Mark P said,

    Jouni Seppänen said,
    I'm a native Finnish speaker, and I just want to say that "vastuuvelvollisuus" sounds like the most terrible kind of bureaucratese.

    As is "accountability" in an educational sense, when intended to mean something other than the traditional responsibility of a teacher. So no problem there.

    But there is a very significant difference in degree. Accountability is an ordinary word of ordinary language with a long and respectable history – the OED has usage examples going back to 1750 – and it has merely been misappropriated for bureaucratic use recently. But vastuuvelvollisuus is bureaucratic from the start. It sounds artificial, historically recent, clunky and made-up in a sense in which accountability simply does not, whatever connotations accountability might carry in a particular context.

    For what it's worth, I'm a native Finnish speaker, and I work in document translation both from Finnish into English and from English into Finnish – including a lot of paperwork having to do precisely with the Finnish school system. Vastuuvelvollisuus is a correctly formed compound word (from vastuu 'responsibility' and velvollisuus 'obligation'), but I do not recall ever seeing it anywhere until now. In fact it sounds to me exactly like a word which some hapless translator somewhere has made up out of thin air in exasperation when an angry client has insisted that the conceptual distinction found in contemporary American English between accountability and responsibility simply must somehow be conveyed in a Finnish-language text.

    Vastuu is a very common and ordinary word, but it is usually translated as 'responsibility' – which further illustrates the non-existence of the said distinction in Finnish. Vastuullisuus is derived from vastuu and could be translated as 'responsibleness', i.e. 'the quality of being responsible'.

    Of the candidates discussed here, tilivelvollisuus perhaps comes closest; it even has the root tili '(financial) account'. But it has quite a whiff of the religious about it. One could be tilivelvollinen to God at the Last Judgement, or to one's own conscience in accordance with Lutheran doctrine, or perhaps to the pitchfork-wielding elders of a small village in the backwoods (to me personally, the word brings to mind a stereotypical Lars von Trier movie). But no, you could hardly be tilivelvollinen to anyone in the happy-go-lucky Finnish school system.

    Joel Kaasinen said,

    I think I could stand behind the assertion "Finland does not have separate words for accountability and responsibility".

    I too could stand behind this assertion. But I also agree with all those who have opined that the point was unfortunately put when it came out sounding like a snowclone. What was meant was that the distinction between responsibility and accountability, in the bureaucratic and managerialistic sense, cannot be conveyed in Finnish without its coming across as faintly ridiculous.

  31. David L said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    In related news: I happened to be reading a piece by Aleksandar Hemon, in the Dec 5 New Yorker, on being uprooted from Sarajevo and making a new home in Chicago. He says this about life in Sarajevo:

    "Because anonymity was well nigh impossible and privacy literally incomprehensible (there is no word for 'privacy' in Bosnian), your fellow-Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them."

    I assume Hemon knows what he's talking about, language-wise, although I find the logic of this sentence doubtful, to say the least…

  32. Larry Goldsmith said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

    I wish this thread had appeared a couple of months ago, when I was translating some articles on education policy from English to Spanish and wracking my brain about how to translate "accountability." It turns out that there really is no single word in Spanish that adequately expresses the connotations of the word as it is used in neoliberal education policy: responsibility, but linked to standardized testing and other quantitative methods of tracking and accounting. There is even a short article on the subject here (though the link isn't working at the moment because they apparently unplug all the servers at UNAM when we go on vacation); it suggests that the word be left untranslated. I opted to use "responsabilidad" with an explanatory note. As Mark and others have suggested, "accountability" has developed a specialized meaning in English that doesn't have a convenient equivalent in other languages, and this is not the same as saying that Mexicans "are handicapped by a fatal lexical/cultural/conceptual vacuum where the concept of accountability should be." I can assure you that Mexicans (for whom I was translating) are very well acquainted with the concept, in all of its neoliberal implications, even in the absence of a Spanish word to name it.

    [(myl) I've somehow lost the thread here. How is the idea of government-mandated standardized testing "neo-liberal"? ]

  33. Larry Goldsmith said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    Government-mandated standardized testing isn't necessarily neoliberal (in the sense of "neoliberal" as arguing for the superiority of private enterprise over the public sector and the superiority of "free markets" and globalization over regulated economies), but such testing is a main feature of neoliberal education policy such as the No Child Left Behind Act.

  34. Leonardo Herrera said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    David Fried – yes, "el es el responsable" means "he's the one to be held accountable." Also, Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch brings another subtle context difference (being "the person responsible of".) Accountability is implied by the word "responsibility" but tends to be dismissed when the importance of your responsibilities is not perceived as important.

    In any case, responsibility is still not a translation of for accountability, so this particular snowclone is basically true (there is no Spanish word for accountability!)

  35. Todd said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    It's perfectly accurate to claim that language X may not have a word for concept Y. What you're disliking here is the fact that an implication has been made about the relationship between language and culture which you happen to disagree with. Rather bizarelly, I might add, since we linguists often look at what distinctions a language makes to determine its cultural context – English makes distinctions between galleys and brigantines that Tibetan presumably doesn't. The fact that 'accountability' does not translate easily to Finish /IS/ indicative of cultural differences. No one is saying that the Finish are incapable of understanding the concept.

    There is no word in English for a number of things, and we are forced to either fall back on a phrase ("domesticated animals"), an acronym ("NATO"), or a rough description of a sequence of events ("the feeling you get when you see your favourite reality show contestant eliminated and you aren't sure if the show is worth watching anymore since the judges ruled so grossly unfairly, but you're not entirely sure whether your perspective was skewed by the fact that you found said contestant's Southern accent sexy").

    This blog is getting more and more asinine and nitpicky. What happened to the days when the subject of discussion was linguistics? That fun, joyful discipline an interest in which I would hope we all share? Not "Politician X made snafu Y in oblong state Z; we snort derisively for four paragraphs".

  36. the other Mark P said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

    This blog is getting more and more asinine and nitpicky. What happened to the days when the subject of discussion was linguistics? That fun, joyful discipline an interest in which I would hope we all share? Not "Politician X made snafu Y in oblong state Z; we snort derisively for four paragraphs".

    But perhaps not the only nitpicky one. It is Language Log, not Linguistics Log. Given the people involved, I'm guessing they did that on purpose.

    Also I have never seen LL "snort derisively" at a politician's mistake. I have seen it, repeatedly, take said snorters to task for their pettiness and silliness. (It's not LL who is claiming Obama says "I" too much, or who claimed Bush's odd gaffe meant anything at all other than people make odd mistakes.)

  37. Poika said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    As a Finn having worked a couple of years in a business with an American-influenced corporate culture and jargon, I had trouble at first grasping the nuances of the distinction between accountability and responsibility. Even now, I tend to think of accountability as pretty much a subset of responsibility: it's responsibility without the inner motivation (sense of duty) and the corresponding moral obligation in front of the community. In this sense, accountability sounds more legal or contractual. It's the "objective", observable side of having a task assigned to you and of having to face certain consequences as a result of a possible failure.

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