Candidate for careless Whorfian nonsense of the year

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Earlier today, I discussed (or at least linked to) a serious econometric study arguing that the morphology of future time reference is meaningfully correlated — perhaps causally correlated — with the distribution of attitudes towards "willingness to take climate action" ("The latest on the Whorfian morphology of time"). A short time later, with the radio playing in the background as I worked, I heard an extraordinary example of (what I take to be) the sort of media-buzz nonsense that gives discussions of linguistic relativity such a bad reputation among serious people.

From the TED Radio Hour, 3/9/2018, "Kang Lee: Can Technology Detect Our Hidden Emotions?":

Guy Raz: If in fact you can connect certain physiological signals to specific emotions, surely it has to be adjusted for cultural context, right? Because there are some cultures that we- we know that don't experience sadness because they don't have the language. The word doesn't exist.

If there are really cultures whose members "don't experience sadness" because "the word doesn't exist" in their language, I'll apologize abjectly to Guy Raz, and start a campaign to eliminate depression in America by establishing legal penalties for the use of relevant dictionary entries.

But really, no, what he said was, well, I don't know a suitable one-word description.

Somehow, all the same, despite the lack of an exactly appropriate English word, I'm experiencing a well-defined constellation of emotionally-laden cognitive phenomena: a vividly negative opinion of Mr. Raz's intellectual honesty and responsibility, and a strengthened feeling that allegedly scientific sound bites from TED are not to be trusted.

A few more examples and we'll have a new English word: I'm feeling really Raz.

Update — added to our "'No word for X' archive".


  1. Craig said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

    Out of curiosity, has anything worthwhile ever been said in a TED talk? Every time I see references to them, they seem to contain nothing but psychobabble or empty marketing talk. Some comedian even did a parody of a TED talk that basically consisted of a few silly mannerisms and random sprinklings of words like "paradigm" and "innovate".

  2. Mai Kuha said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    Regarding people reportedly not experiencing sadness because they don't have a word for it, I'm not sure whether this is an orthodox view among psychologists, but Lisa Feldman Barrett argues (if I understand correctly) that our experience of emotions is constructed to some extent. If she is right, the availability of emotion words would matter.

    [(myl) I have no doubt that "our experience of emotions is constructed to some extent", though I suspect that the availability of words is much less important than the memorable embodiment of cognitive prototypes in narratives, rituals, and so on.]

  3. Chrisj said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    That's a joke from the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Shaltanac people (from Broop Kidron 13, if I remember correctly) wind up forced to be happy because their botanically eccentric planet makes it hard to say "the other man's grass is always greener", leading the guide (ie Adams' authorial voice) to conclude "the best way not to be unhappy is not to have a word for it".

    (Naturally, their being permanently happy makes everyone else in the universe hate them – I think they might be the race who wind up having telepathy inflicted on them as a punishment.)

  4. EvelynU said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

    Funny, I heard that exact quote just a half hour ago, and I shouted at the radio–What? Possibly the most absurd statement I've ever heard on NPR. His guest did go on to discuss cultural differences in how depression may be framed, and ok, sure, Melancholia may have been thought of differently by ancient Greeks or early Christian desert fathers or Victorians or contemporary Chinese, but I feel fairly confident that everyone could come to agreement that it involved feeling of, oh whadday call it, um, sad?

    My daughter and I were discussing the fact (I'm gonna say fact) that whenever you hear people say that language x doesn't have a word for ___, it'll turn out to be wrong. I was told Japanese women don't have a word for "hot flashes," but then I asked actual Japanese women, and they knew exactly what i was talking about. Imagine that!

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

    @EvelynU I'm with you on the "fact"

  6. AntC said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 8:33 pm

    But really, no, what he said was, well, I don't know a suitable one-word description.

    So your dictionary's entries have already been pruned for "nonsense", "gibberish", "downright bollox", "claptrap", …?

    [(myl) My reactions are more complex and subtle — yet univocal — than any of these words and phrases suggest. I feel that the speaker is revealing himself as someone who emits cliché-driven conceptual clickbait without any concern for truth. This idea simultaneously encompasses the clickbait, the bullshitter, and the experience of recognizing their relationship.]

  7. Goueznou said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 9:21 pm

    I'd like to respond to Craig's comment above. I've watched a number of TED talks on YouTube, and I'd have to say at least half of them had interesting and meaningful things to contribute. The most unusual was "My Mushroom Burial Suit", but there have been a few others that were positively thought-provoking. Usually those have been about music or new technology, but not every time.

  8. geekosaur said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 1:33 am

    One might consider the applicability of Sturgeon's Law: if something is only 80% crap, it can look good by comparison to the common case.

    Not that I am trying to put a number on the quality of TED talks, but like anything else there are good and bad ones. They just tend to have a few more good ones than you'd expect. Plus they had some great ones early on, establishing the kind of reputation that's hard to live up to.

  9. richardelguru said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 6:47 am

    @ AntC, quoting OP "But really, no, what he said was, well, I don't know a suitable one-word description."

    I thought he was amusingly and orotundly avoiding the word "shit".

    But that's probably just me.

  10. Keith said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 7:48 am

    I'm glad you posted the audio; I was reminded, as much by the content as the sound of the voice, of Terence McKenna's speech on Re-Evolution by the Shamen.

    [(myl) Interesting. In fact I fetched the podcast and extracted the audio clip because I thought I might have misunderstood, given that the radio was playing in the background as I plugged away on various foreground tasks.]

  11. Keith said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 8:05 am

    This idea simultaneously encompasses the clickbait, the bullshitter, and the experience of recognizing their relationship

    The German language must have a word for "making hyperbolic claims, while knowing that the listener recognises them as hyperbolic, and that both the listener and the speaker each know that the other knows this".

  12. ~flow said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    @Keith I submit "vom Leder ziehen", which is like "angeben" (to boast) but louder and with more flamboyancy.

  13. Jonathan said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:44 am

    Like you and EvelynU, I heard the same thing and nearly hit another car. The entire segment was so astonishing, pointing out that all we do when we infer feelings in others by observing them is a "guess" (which is both trivially true and epistemically meaningless) and then babbling about this while using language, without the least awareness that the meaning of every sentence ever uttered by anyone is also the same kind of "guess" and the only reason we guess well at all is because of shared culture.

  14. KevinM said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 11:52 am

    I'd like to be rich. If only I lived in a culture with no word for "broke."

  15. Leah F said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

    Your emotions sound to me like some combination of "disillusioned" (or "distrustful" –
    which applies depends on your previous experience) and "indignant." The kind of irritation everyone feels when listening to someone bs'ing with a platform larger than they apparently deserve. Maybe it does deserve a term of its own, as it is on the upswing. There are bigger instigators of this feeling than Guy Raz, I suspect.

    The cause of the emotions sounds like, as you say a combination of "clickbait" and "bullshit" – though I'd argue that "bullshit" centrally is used to mean self-serving mendacity, not mendacity in general; and that clickbait is intrinsically self-serving, so you could use "bullshit" as the term for what was uttered and be sufficiently accurate in a single word.

  16. Joe said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    I was just watching Kevin Hart tell a story about his drunken efforts to celebrate the Eagles' Superbowl win. I guess since English doesn't have words like "schnappsidee" this stuff never happens outside of Germany.

  17. James Wimberley said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 3:11 pm

    Since German, as an agglutinative language, has far more single words for objects, mental states, etc than non-agglutinative languages, Germany unfairly always walks away with the laurel leaves at the Whorfian B/S Olympics. But then, why doesn't it get all the Nobels?

  18. tangent said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:24 pm

    It's a specific subset of bullshit, made to sound catchy rather than other uses. If a portmanteau isn't too easy, I suggest 'clickbull'.

  19. Ray said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:30 pm

    I think the word that mark is looking for is "le sigh"

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 5:00 am

    Keith: "The German language must have a word for "making hyperbolic claims, while knowing that the listener recognises them as hyperbolic, and that both the listener and the speaker each know that the other knows this" — is this not even more likely to be true for Japanese, where (if I understand correctly) each individual known to another individual is mentally classified into one of approximately four disjoint groups, and will adjust his/her speech accordingly. For each group there will be a differing level of deliberate untruth as a normal part of conversation, each side tacitly knowing that the other side is using this degree of untruth and making allowance for it.

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

    James Wimberley: a propensity for compounding does not make a language agglutinative.

  22. David Udin said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

    Even funnier than when a claim is made about a language X not having a term for Y (and it turns out to be false) is when someone says
    "language X has no term for [common multi-word English phrase]" in a context implying it's a cultural determiner, where language X = English has no term for said phrase either.

    And "hot flashes" is, by my count, two words. No doubt there is a one word medical term for it (them?), probably constructed from bits of Latin, and not known outside the medical profession.

  23. David Udin said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

    Delving deeper into the subject (wikipedia) I am disappointed to find that the medical profession apparently hasn't constructed a word for hot flashes: "…causes of vasomotor symptoms (VMS)—the clinical name for hot flashes—…" although vasomotor is bits of Latin. Instead they had to resort to the modern trend towards initialisms as a substitute for a phrase. LOL. I blame the decline of Latin in schools and the pernicious influence of texting among the youth of today.

  24. geekosaur said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

    Re "vasomotor symptoms", I blame the medical profession considering them "all in her head" until relatively recently, when they finally admitted that maybe women might actually have something happening other than "hysteria" (look up the origin of that word sometime).

  25. David P said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

    "Hot flashes": Does any language have a single word? Google Translate seems an unreliable way to find out – you get the feeling it's merely translating "hot" and "flash". My incomplete sample turned up a Belorussian word that translated back as "rush" and the intriguing Igbo almost-a-single-word "ọkụ ọkụ", which translates back as "lighting."

  26. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 4:42 am

    Swedish has värmevallning "hot flash".

    I don't think this is significant of anything in particular, tho. It's simply the case that Swedish often uses noun-noun compounds where English would use adjective + noun. Nonce compounds are common.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 4:50 am

    British english has "hot flush"; I had never heard of "hot flashes" before reading this thread, and at first assumed that it was a typo …

  28. 번하드 said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

    @Andreas Johansson: Ah, quite close to German, which has "Hitzewallung".
    "Hot flush" makes me think of some made-in-Japan toilet seat contraption, but I'm weird.
    But it sounds more familiar than "hot flash" to this person, who is exposed to both BrEn and AmEn.

  29. BZ said,

    March 15, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

    I think there was a discussion here a while back about Russian not having a word for "privacy", which is not only literally true, but there is no conception of privacy in Russian, at least in the broad sense it exists in English (although nowadays English-derived borrowings are sometimes used). There are words for personal property and confidential conversations, but privacy as a fundamental concept just doesn't exist. And it absolutely impacts how Russians think about such things.

    For example, my mom thinks the whole privacy thing is politically correct BS comparable to things like "self esteem" (which does exist in Russian, but many believe is way over-stressed in the US). She complains my young nephews are already "infected" with this "privacy" virus because they already use the word in relation to potty training and such.

    Is there a causal relationship? I don't know, but it's an interesting case study nevertheless.

    So it's not true that "no word for X" examples don't exist.

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