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Aayesha Siddiqui, "How Western Psychology Needs To Rethink Depression", WBUR 4/2/2012, quoting Jerome Kagan in an interview with Meghna Chakrabarti, "Psychology Is In Crisis", 3/29/2012:

How the English language falls short: “Let’s take the field of personality. Right now we have terms like introvert, extrovert, shy, anxious. Notice those words are naked. They don’t say with whom you’re introverted, when you’re introverted, in what settings you’re introverted. In other languages — take Japanese for example. There’s no word for “leader” in Japanese. There’s only a word for leader of a corporation, leader of a radio station, leader of a platoon. Because they understand that a person who’s a good leader of a radio station might be a lousy leader of a platoon. And the same thing for extroversion, introversion, shyness. And that’s a problem with the English language. And the problem is that 80 percent of research on personality is done by Americans using the English language. The English language is a very bad language for talking about personality because it doesn’t tell you the context, the setting.”

A language really can't win at this game, as I noted in "No words, or too many", 1/30/2009:

The fact that languages differ somewhat in the generality of their semantic categories can be spun in several different ways — if your terminology is more specific than mine, perhaps this is because you're not yet advanced enough to see the crucial generalization; on the other hand, if it's more general, perhaps this is because you haven't yet learned to make the needed distinctions. This "heads I win, tails you lose" approach is featured in all its ironic glory by Herbert Spencer in The Principles of Sociology, 1893. On p. 354 we learn that

… in the languages of inferior races the advances in generalization and abstraction are so slight that, while there are words for particular kinds of trees, there is no word for tree, and that, as among the Damaras, while each reach of a river has its special title, there is none for the river as a whole, much less a word for river; or if, still better, we consider the fact that the Cherokees have thirteen verbs to express washing different parts of the body and different things, but no word for washing, dissociated from the part or thing washed; we shall see that social life must have passed through sundry stages, with their accompanying steps in linguistic progress, before the conception of a name became possible.

Amazingly, in the preceding paragraph Spencer makes the opposite complaint about the linguistic inadequacies of inferior races, namely that they are unable to see the world accurately because they have not yet learned to make fine enough distinctions:

"the colours green, black, and brown are habitually confounded in common Arabic parlance" … The Kamschadales have "but one term for the sun and moon" …

Prof. Kagan, of course, is not working the old primitive/civilized dimension, but rather the equally old east/west one.  But his problem with the alleged over-generality and decontextualization of English personality-words can easily remedied by the use of modifiers, either on a nonce basis or in the creation of new terms of art ("shyness with respect to (members of one's parents generation / people from other countries / available members of the opposite sex / potential employers / people wearing formal dress / …). It's not the English language that "doesn’t tell you the context, the setting" — it's the person using the English language who makes that choice.

And, of course, I'm skeptical in advance of the assertion that Japanese words for personality characteristics carry with them a full specification of the psychologically-relevant contexts and settings. Perhaps some readers who are familiar with Japanese personality-words will comment.


  1. Stu said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    As a japanese learner (though having only completed comparatively basic linguistics courses), it's still pretty obvious that most adjectives do not have the full array of contextual identifiers that Prof. Kagan is asserting. While it's true that "boss"/"leader" don't have a general variant (they're usually jukugo–words that ostensibly come from Chinese–and are pronounced as 社長 (shachou – CEO/Company President), 課長 (kachou – Section Chief), 部長 (buchou – department chief), 家長 (kachou – patriarch)), even that is a bit of a stretch because all of the relevant words have the same character at the end, indicating the same general idea.

    With more quotidian nouns and adjectives–especially those of japanese origin, meaning not jukugo–there's no real context information embedded in most of them. 恥ずかしい, for example (hazukashii – shy) tells you nothing about the context in which the person is shy.

    So I'm inclined to agree with your evaluation of Prof. Kagan's remarks.

  2. ohwilleke said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    Of course, what really matters is not the linguistic labels but the empirical question of whether a person's introverted personality pursuant to a personality test is really a stable cross domain personality trait or a context specific behavioral pattern. If the underlying concept is coherent, then having a single word for it is appropriate and preferrable. If it is not, then it might be helpful to have more words for it.

    The problem of psychology, where the coherence of many concepts and definitions is disputed, has more to do with a lack of consensus building evidence to support different personality models than it does with linguistic shortfalls. Psychiatrists and psychologists have been quite clever at devising new concepts when they feel that there is a need for them (the DSM-IV, for example, is littered which such invented words).

  3. GeorgeW said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    "the colours green, black, and brown are habitually confounded in common Arabic parlance"

    Huh? Does he mean khadir, buni and aaswad?

  4. Ted said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Isn't Spencer in a way lending support to Sapir-Whorf, inasmuch as his commentary makes sense only if you assume that there is some objective measure of Truth under which it can be demonstrated that segments of a river are not distinct objects (and it it incorrect to refer to them as if they were, rather than to river, which is the correct concept-category) whereas green, black, and brown are distinct colors (and it is incorrect to refer to a single concept-category rather than to each of them specifically)?

    In other words, can it be a coincidence that Spencer the Englishman evidently believes that the world naturally falls into conceptual categories that mirror the linguistic properties of English?

  5. Rubrick said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    …they understand that a person who’s a good leader of a radio station might be a lousy leader of a platoon.

    I have great faith in the American can-do spirit. Someday we, too, will understand this basic fact. Maybe not in my generation, nor my children's — but someday.

    [(myl) This slow and painful process may be linguistically assisted by the fact that a platoon leader is generally called a "lieutenant", whereas a radio-station leader generally is called a "station manager". Of course, the person who actually leads a platoon is usually a "sergeant", whereas I suspect that the person who actually leads a radio station is usually an "administrative assistant".]

  6. B.T.Carolus said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    The claims about the lack of a Japanese word for leader reminds me of the position of the word "Führer" in German now. It is so explicitly tied to der Führer that it has become a problem word that is easily interpreted as either a political position or an insult. To call somebody Führer can cause a minor uproar, not only in the realm of national politics but also in a setting like an office or a classroom. But it can still be used as a compound: Geschäftsführer, Reiseführer, etc. Just because it can't be used alone, doesn't mean that the Germans have lost the concept of a generic leader, and it also doesn't mean that there is something especially contextual about German. I imagine that the Japanese process -chou in a similar way, albeit perhaps less explicitly. I also imagine that there is a generalized term for leader, although perhaps one that directly translates into something different in English. Head, perhaps?

  7. Stephen said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

    With regards to the words for "leader" in Japanese, Stu is, of course, correct in saying that they tend to contain the same morpheme (長/chō). At the same time though, the comparison of these words to English is complicated by the fact that we, in fact, have our own translations of words in this category in English, for instance 校長/kōchō, meaning principal (literally school-head) or 会長/kaichō, meaning chairperson. The morpheme 長/chō really means more like the 'head' of a group or organization. I agree the terms are in some cases more nuanced, but there is a Japanese word that just means 'leader' without the semantic subtleties of the other terms, 指導者/shidōsha. As for emotions, I can't really say, the only thing that comes to mind is the distinction that Japanese makes between emotions the speaker feels personally, and emotions of others that the speaker describes, like 恥ずかしい/hazukashii (I am shy) versus 恥ずかしがる/hazukashigaru (He is shy).

  8. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    It's so cool that the complainer rather eloquently detailed what it was that could not be said in English…in English.

  9. Maguro said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    The Japanese word for "leader" is リーダー (riidaa). Sure, it's a foreign loanword, but that doesn't disqualify it from being a word, does it?

  10. glitch said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    And of course when it comes to personality/psychology we do already have at least some compounds that tell you the context – "social anxiety", for instance.

  11. John said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    @ohwilleke: My understanding (as an interested observer, not at all an expert in the area!) is that the current consensus among psychological researchers is that introversion *is* a robust trait, fairly stable across different domains, different ways of testing it, and across the span of one's adult life.

    And (as I understand) there's probably a good reason why "introverted" was selected as a Big Five personality trait but not "shyness." What we call shyness may be very dependent on context (e.g. whether I am placed in a position of authority, whether I'm in a familiar situation, etc.), whereas introversion (as the term is used by psychologists) measures something like to what degree I feel fatigued by socializing a lot with other people (or energized, if I'm an extravert), and this latter thing could be totally independent of my mood or social setting. As an introvert myself, I can testify that I seem to need at least X hours of time per week alone to be happy, for some value of X which appears to be as immutable as my eye color. So I think there really is some objective fact here to measure.

    It is possibly an interesting issue that much of the evidence used in studies about these psychological traits seems to rely on self-reporting via written surveys, so there could be a linguistic angle here. I understand that (some) psychologists are aware of this issue and have compared results of such surveys across different cultures and in various languages, but I don't have enough of a sense of the field to say any more about this.

  12. J. Goard said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 10:12 pm


    Isn't Spencer in a way lending support to Sapir-Whorf […]

    Yes, I suppose he is a single data point. But I'd hardly call this "support", unless we have reason to believe that there weren't also a lot of English monolinguals at the time who were nevertheless capable of critiquing his flawed reasoning.

  13. Kenny said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 12:16 am

    I'm not entirely sure what's up with the difference between -i adjectives and there equivalent-garu/-geru verbs (I'm pretty sure there is no difference except maybe register/fanciness), but it's not a difference based on personal feelings and other people's feelings, at least not if hazukashii and hazukashigaru follow the same supossed grammatical rule as –tai and –tagaru.

    The difference between those has been described to be person (which I'm not convinced really exists in Japanese), where –tai can be used for 1st and 2nd, while –tagaru is reserved for third person. I'm pretty sure that there's no grammatical or social rule violated by the statement hazukashii desu ka (Are you embarrased/Are you shy?), which clearly can't be about the speaker.

    On the broader questions about Japanese personality words, although I'm not a native speaker and have never studied psychology in Japanese, I would say the claim that Japanese words are better and involve more context specification is false. The very common question donna hito desu ka (what kind of person is [subject]?) Doesn't suggest or involve any constraints for context. Let's also remember that in Japan there is a pop psychological belief/trend that blood type determines aspects of your personality and that there is blood-type compatibility for personality/relationships. That is not to say that every Japanese person takes that seriously, but I think it speaks against the idea that Japanese is somehow inherently better for discussing personality.

  14. MattF said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    And, also, there isn't any word for 'not having a word for' so it's a concept that can't be explained.

  15. Dan Hemmens said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    And, also, there isn't any word for 'not having a word for' so it's a concept that can't be explained.

    If you take the really hard version of "no word for X" it's even stronger than that. Since there is no word in English for "not having a word for" it means that English speakers must have a word for *everything*.

    Which of course leads to something of a paradox..;

  16. Rube said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    @ Dan: I'm kind of in awe of that…

  17. Russell said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    @Stephen, @Kenny

    As far as I've read in the Japanese ling literature, the idea is that Japanese predicates that concern internal states (embarrassment, desire, feelings of temperature, etc.) require use of evidential markers unless you're talking about yourself (in which case you have direct access to the state) or you are asking a question about the state of an addressee (in which case you presume they have direct access). -garu is a type of evidential marker, as are things like -yoo da and soo da (as in atsu-soo da). But it's not specifically about grammatical person, because if one does have direct access to a person's internal states — e.g., one is writing a story with a tight-third-person perspective — then the evidentials are unnecessary (in fact, inappropriate).

  18. Sparky said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:13 am

    Brown is Arabic is "aaswad"? Really?!? *Snort*

  19. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

    I think the discussion about terms for leader in Japanese needs to take into account the social context of each expression. I would say the reason that there is only the loan word リーダー as a generic expression for leader is that in Japanese culture generic expressions of status have not historically been useful. As a Japanese speaker, you need to know the relative status of your interlocutor to function effectively. And even if you are referring to someone in the third person, you need to append the title to his/her name for context.

  20. chris said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

    Sure, it's a foreign loanword, but that doesn't disqualify it from being a word, does it?

    Well, it works for "honcho" (which probably came from the same family Stu and Stephen are describing, since it also ends with "cho").

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