Wade Davis has no word for "dubious linguistic claim"

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Anthony Claden sent in a link to Wade Davis, "The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – review", The Guardian 1/9/2013:

In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time.

For some comments about time-reference in an Australian language, see "Journalistic dreamtime" (3/8/2007); for some generally relevant discussion, see Stan Carey, "Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?", Sentence First 5/21/2011.

And James Eagle sent in this one — Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011:

In Tibetan, there is no word for a mountain summit; the very place the British so avidly sought, their highest goal, did not even exist in the language of their Sherpa porters.

James observes that

His claim that "no word for"="does not exist in the language" would be rather silly even if he hadn't accidentally refuted it in the *very same sentence* by highlighting that English has no word for "mountain summit" either…

So this post is duly added to the "'No word for X' archive".

[Tips of the hat to Anthony Clayden and James Eagle]


  1. Michael Cargal said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    English has no word for eating strawberries. I wonder what happens to all those strawberries I see in the store.

  2. NW said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    Actually English has no word for "time" either. There's only a lexeme that broadly covers both the physicist's dimension (the sense under discussion here), and individual occasions ('what I tell you three times is true'). It lacks a specific word for the dimension, which is why I personally never plan for the morrow and can't remember the date.

  3. richardelguru said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    Michael, they are all eaten by passing Sherpas and Aboriginals

  4. John Lawler said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    There are surprisingly few morphemes in English that have only temporal reference, many of which come from the root dur-:
    when, then, now, late, early, endure, duration, durable, durability, during

    Pretty much everything else in English relating to time is an instantiation of either the Time is Money or the Time is Spatial Motion metaphor themes.

  5. Jukka Kohonen said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    So… what IS the Tibetan expression for "mountain summit"? Inquiring minds want to know!

    [(myl) From this we can get these:


  6. John O'Toole said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    @richardelguru: I didn't know that eating strawberries, in English, involved consuming and digesting Sherpas and Aboriginals initially. What an odd culture, indeed.

  7. Jeff Carney said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    As one who lives in a very mountainous part of the US, I find it strange that anglophones put such importance on the concept of mountain as a discreet entity. I encounter very few structures that I would call a mountain. Even when something is named Mount X, it is usually just a feature that can be readily distinguished from the ridge or plateau to which it belongs. The idea of "the summit" is a little weird and generally irrelevant when discussing a mountain range or mountainous area.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    What do you call it when a language has a perfectly good word for something but its speakers choose not to use it? And I don't mean euphemisms. Spanish, for example, has a word for the verb "wipe": enjugar, cognate of French essuyer and Italian asciugare. But Spanish-speakers prefer to represent wiping by its function: limpiar if it's cleaning, secar if it's drying, borrar if it's erasing. A windshield wiper is thought of as a windshield cleaner (limpiaparabrisas); "wipe that grin off your face" is bórrate esa sonrisa de la cara; wiping one's tears away is secarse las lágrimas. Does this means that the concept of wiping (regardless of function) is foreign to Hispanics, despite their having a word for it?

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

    Back to the original post: surely James Eagle knows that English has the word "peak", even if Wade Davis chose not to use it.

  10. James Eagle said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    I certainly do, but its meaning is sufficiently broad and vague I think you'd struggle to argue that it's "the English word for 'mountain summit'."

  11. Steve Kass said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    Hmm, according to this and other online sources, there is a Tibetan word for the top of a mountain: རྩེ་མོ. (If the Tibetan characters don't survive posting, search for tsemo rtse at site:rigpawiki.org.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    I certainly do, but its meaning is sufficiently broad and vague I think you'd struggle to argue that it's "the English word for 'mountain summit'."

    Just like NW argues for time.

    Also, "peak", like "summit", has a range of meanings beyond mountain peak.

    And I think in context "summit" itself is a usually perfectly good word for mountain summit.

    Still, there's a certain humor in seeing the use of a two word phrase for something another language doesn't have a "word" for, whatever the explanation for the use of a two word phrase.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    Oh wait… just realized that in what I quote above James Eagles was talking about the word "peak" mentioned by Coby Lubliner.

    Point is, both "summit" and "peak are words for the top of a mountain. And both words have multiple meanings such that in some, but not all, contexts, you have to add the word "mountain" to convey the idea of the top of a mountain.

  14. bijoo said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    There are relatively few names for specific colors, just a range of generalities. It is how the artist combines elements on a palette and how nuanced combined colors can be as they are situated in relationship. Language, it seems to me, is never really about static elements. Poetry occurs as each of us string together bits to describe our experience.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    Google n-gram viewer indicates one-word "mountaintop" becoming more common than two-word "mountain top" circa 1975, with the trendlines continuing to diverge (rather strongly in favor of "mountaintop") since then. Some of the uses of closed-up "mountaintop" are as an adjective rather than a noun, but by no means all. "I thought of you as my mountaintop, I thought of you as my peak. I thought of you as everything I've had but couldn't keep." (NB: that lyric is variously transcribed in both google books and elsewhere on the internet both closed-up and as "mountain top"; an anthology authorized by the original lyricist approx. a quarter-century after the words were written seems to prefer the latter, but I frankly don't consider that dispositive.)

    [(myl) The choice to write a complex nominal solid or with internal hyphens or with internal spaces doesn't really have anything to do with whether it should be considered as a "word", except in the circular sense that someone may define "word" as "sequence of letters without internal spaces or punctuation". The English compound word made up of spark combined with plug is a compound noun, whether you write it as "spark plug" or "spark-plug" or "sparkplug".

    So does English "have a word for sparkplug" (in whatever spelling)? Well, it has a compound word, whose meaning (though quasi-compositional) is sufficiently specialized to merit status as a dictionary entry (and presumably as an entry in the mental lexicon of those who know what it means). There isn't a monomorphemic word — but as various commenters have hinted, there's very little reason to care about this question one way or the other.]

  16. Howard Oakley said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    It is perhaps worth pointing out that both of these quotations come from the same keyboard – that of Wade Davis. Nowhere in Diamond's book can I find a statement as sweepingly misfounded as that given in the 'review'. And whilst you can disagree with Diamond's theses, his research and factual accuracy are normally rather better than such a statement would entail.

    I also wonder whether sherpas would be caught speaking a dialect of Tibetan, when most are ethnic Sherpas whose native tongue is Sherpa – admittedly a Tibetan language – but who are often bilingual in Nepali these days? Perhaps someone can elucidate…


  17. David said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    What about "mountaintop"?

  18. David Morris said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

    In 1993, Dr Jackelin Troy published a study of the words of the indigenous language(s) of the Sydney region, as recorded by early British writers (mostly in the late 18th century, but as late as the late 19th century). She divides these into categories, one of which is "Temporals". She lists: "bye and bye, presently – day after tomorrow – day – evening – future event—'it is going to…' – just now, some little time back or last night – long ago – *long time* – morning—before sunrise – morning – night – now – presently – same day – soon (some little time hence) – sun rise – sun set – then – today "
    It is true that there is no word for 'time' on that list, but there is 'long time', which surely indicates a concept of time. Note that English has no word for 'day after tomorrow' (or, for that matter, 'day before yesterday').
    There also may not be an indigenous word for 'kangaroo' in the sense of 'all large macropodes' or 'all macropodes'. Every indigenous language I have encountered (admittedly, not a lot, but this was one of my masters subjects last year) has separate words for different varieties of macropode, but no word for 'all the large ones' (ie as compared to wallabies) or 'all of them'.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

    Surely aboriginal languages have lots of words which have no equivalent in any European languages.

  20. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

    I am given to understand that 'kangaroo' was an early-British transcription of a word in one of the more obscure aboriginal languages. But the word they transcribed referred not to the several species of large macropodes that the Brits were inquiring "the name" of (which they assumed MUST somehow share a single name), but rather to the class of edible animals, which is the grouping that their guides considered all of those different species to belong to.

    In short they asked a question that had no single answer, but their guides interpreted it as though it were a sensible question, and gave a single answer that made sense to themselves.


  21. Mona Williams said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

    The Japanese language permits grammatical subjects to be omitted from sentences once they have been introduced into the discourse. By this logic, allowing "summit" for "mountain summit" would be OK a lot of the time.

  22. Rubrick said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    It's interesting that Sherpas, despite their obvious natural advantages, have never forged a world-spanning empire. I hypothesize that their long, unweildy term for "pea-maggot" has held them back.

  23. AntC said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

    @Howard Oakley, you're quite correct that the words are from the reviewer [Davis], not the reviewed. Indeed, the sentence comes in the middle of a long peroration that I could only describe as metaphysical 'claptrap'. (That's not, BTW, a criticism of "the visionary realm of the Aborigines" — on which I am not qualified to comment, but on Davis' high-flown language, over-imbued with Whorfianism.)
    Curiously, that paragraph begins with the words "In truth, …".

  24. Chris C. said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

    English also has no word for those times when you're eating and feel your teeth JUST ABOUT to bite down on the inside of your lip, but your reflexes kick in so you back off in time to prevent a painful episode.

    Must be why I accidentally bite the inside of my lip so often.

  25. Mark Mandel said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    Nor do they have a word for 'Wade Davis'. … Oh, nevwayer mind, I'm sure they all have a t

  26. Mark Mandel said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

    … to say "fool". What I have to say about this Android interface is not appropriate here.

  27. dainichi said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

    > … by highlighting that English has no word for "mountain summit" either …

    But… surely "mountain summit" is a (compound) word? :D

    I think everybody agrees that the "has no word" thing is bullocks. I guess the idea is that the more commonly you need to express a concept in a language, the shorter the necessary expression would generally tend to be, by some evolution-towards-optimality principle.

    Whether "tsemo rtse" – or whatever the common Tibetian expression is – is unexpectedly long or not is beyond my analytic abilities…

  28. phspaelti said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    @Ray Dillinger said: I am given to understand that 'kangaroo' was an early-British transcription of a word in one of the more obscure aboriginal languages. But the word they transcribed referred not to the several species of large macropodes that the Brits were inquiring "the name" of (which they assumed MUST somehow share a single name), but rather to the class of edible animals, which is the grouping that their guides considered all of those different species to belong to.

    The language in question is Guguyimidjir, and the word is (I believe) the name for the red kangaroo. My understanding is that in such languages there is no specific term for kangaroos in general, only species specific terms. So the original term was more specific, not more general.

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    So "kangaroo" is the word in that dialect for game animal. Which we don't have a word for. But we do have a word for "dead game animal I can't be bothered to drag home": carrion.

  30. Rohan F said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 2:37 am


    Yes, the language is Guugu Yimidhirr/Yimithirr (with an interdental stop /dh/, not a palatal), and the term /gangurru/ refers specifically to the grey kangaroo, Macropus giganteus. Other Guugu Yimidhirr words exist for kangaroo species (/daarraalngan/ and /ngurrumugu/ are two I can find in the literature, though no species associated with the definitions, unfortunately).

  31. Rohan F said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 2:52 am

    phspaelti: just found a source (Robert Haviland's 1979 Guugu Yimidhirr grammar) that outlines the terms in a bit more detail. /ngurrumugu/ appears to be a synonym of /gangurru/; the GY term for the red kangaroo is /nharrgali/. /daarraalngan/ is an avoidance term, and like avoidance terms in many Australian languages it has a broader semantic range than the non-avoidance counterparts. It refers to kangaroos and wallabies in general, as well as to kangaroo rats.

  32. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 4:07 am

    Good to see an informed discussion of the word kangaroo (that doesn't include the myth that it means "I don't know"). You might like to look at this:


  33. phspaelti said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 4:14 am

    Thanks Rohan for providing better information, than my half-remembered notions. The language spelling that I used I took from Ethnologue, but I now see that they use Guugu Yimidhirr to designate the family. See http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=126-16

  34. David Morris said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    At least three journals by crew members of the Endeavour survive. The lesser known Sydney Parkinson, draughtsman to Joseph Banks, merely includes in his word list: 'Kangooroo, The leaping quadruped.' Banks describes it at greater length: 'Quadrupeds we saw but few and were able to catch few of them that we did see. The largest was calld by the natives Kangooroo. It is different from any European and indeed any animal I have heard or read of except the Gerbua of Egypt, which is not larger than a rat when this is as large as a midling Lamb; the largest we shot weighd 84 lb. It may however be easily known from all other animals by the singular property of running or rather hopping upon only its hinder legs carrying its fore bent close to its breast; in this manner however it hops so fast that in the rocky bad ground where it is commonly found it easily beat my grey hound, who tho he was fairly started at several killd only one and that quite a young one.'

    James Cook writes: 'One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot', which surely points to the grey kangaroo and not the larger red (which may not be found in that area anyway). He later writes: 'I saw myself this morning, a little way from the Ship, one of the Animals before spoke off; it was of a light mouse Colour and the full size of a Grey Hound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a Grey hound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jump'd like a Hare or Deer.' He later uses the spellings 'Kangooroo, or Kanguru', and adds 'we found [them] very good Eating'.

  35. David Morris said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 4:36 am

    Banks describes the difficulties in eliciting words in a completely new, unknown language: 'Of their Language I can say very little. Our acquaintance with them was of so short a duration that none of us attempted to use a single word of it to them, consequently the list of words I have given could be got no other manner than by signs enquiring of them what in their Language signified such a thing, a method obnoxious to many mistakes: for instance a man holds in his hand a stone and asks the name of [it]: the Indian may return him for answer either the real name of a stone, one of the properties of it as hardness, roughness, smoothness etc., one of its uses or the name peculiar to some particular species of stone, which name the enquirer immediately sets down as that of a stone. To avoid however as much as Possible this inconvenience Myself and 2 or 3 more got from them as many words as we could, and having noted down those which we though[t] from circumstances we were not mistaken in we compard our lists; those in which all the lists agreed, or rather were contradicted by none, we thought our selves moraly certain not to be mistaken in. Of these my list cheefly consists, some only being added that were in only one list such as from the ease with which signs might be contrivd to ask them were thought little less certain than the others.'

    David Collins a senior official of the colonial government, similarly says: 'In giving an account of an unwritten language many difficulties occur. For things cognizable by the external senses, names may be easily procured; but not so for those which depend on action, or address themselves only to the mind: for instance, a spear was an object both visible and tangible, and a name for it was easily obtained; but the use of it went through a number of variations and inflexions, which it was extremely difficult to ascertain; indeed I never could, with any degree of certainty fix the infinitive mood of any one of their verbs. The following sketch is therefore very limited, though, as far as it does proceed, the reader may be assured of its accuracy.'

    Certainly it would be very difficult to elicit a word such as 'time'.

  36. In defence of Jared Diamond, 'Western' science, and the reality of human progress – Telegraph Blogs said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    […] one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time" is, apparently, false, or at least misleading. Language Log records the sophisticated ways in which certain Aboriginal languages mark future, […]

  37. Jukka Kohonen said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    @John O'Toole,

    I didn't even know there are eating strawberries.
    What a horriculture!

  38. Eneri Rose said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 7:56 am

    Regarding Coby Lubliner's comment of January 14, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    What a happy coincidence for me! Before reading this post, I had been sitting on the throne of our guest bathroom looking at the box of individual, disposable hand towels wondering about the interspersed French on the label: hand towels * essuie mains. Ah, hand wipes!

  39. Claire Bowern said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    Couple of quick points.

    It's John Haviland, not Robert, who wrote the Guugu Yimidhirr grammar.

    The number of generics, life form terms, and unique beginner terms vary extensively among Australian languages. Some languages have no generic for 'kangaroo' but others do. Some have no 'snake' generic, but again, others do. Some have no word for 'tree', but again, others do. It shouldn't be surprising that there is variation here, given that there were about 350 languages at European settlement.

    Likewise, words for 'time' are variably recorded. In my Pama-Nyungan lexical database*, I have about 30 languages with unambiguous words for 'time'. There are plenty more languages with words for time which are polysemous (e.g. with 'tide' or 'place'). All the languages in the database have temporal concepts, but the details of lexicalization of time varies.

    It should be noted that some of these languages probably don't have words recorded for concepts such as 'time' because the researcher didn't think to ask for them…

    *700,000 items from over 1000 doculects, collected thanks to a Career grant from the NSF (BCS-844550).

  40. peter said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

    Although Davis is wrong about Aboriginal languages, his larger view of the Aboriginal philosophy of time is correct. Time in traditional Aboriginal culture is generally not something linear as in modern western culture with past, present and future construed as occupying non-overlapping regions, accessible only by a uni-directional arrow of influence from past to present, and from present to future. A better metaphor for Aboriginal notions of time would be stacked layers for each of past, present and future, each layer permeating and influencing the others, like a city comprising layers of rivers, roads, railways, underground tunnels, cycleways, and sidewalks.

  41. LDavidH said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    Although I'm joining a bit late, maybe someboody will be interested to know that Swedish has no word for "wipe": the word most commonly used, "torka", really means "to dry", so "wipe the table" becomes "torka bordet" i.e. "dry the table" – rather disingenious when the cloth used is actually wet. "Mop the floor" also becomes "dry the floor". My children, whose mother tongue is English, find this very strange indeed. What serious linguists will make of it, I can only imagine…

  42. ThomasH said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

    "What do you call it when a language has a perfectly good word for something ["wipe"] but its speakers choose not to use it? "

    I hope this was meant as parody, but anyone expect any language X to track with a single word in that language all the ways that a given word ["wipe" or anything else] is used in English (or any other language)?

  43. ThomasH said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    Anyone who knows Spanish and English well (and I'd venture, any two languages well) can trivially finds lots of words for which the other has "no word." My favorite is the shocking ambiguity of the the English word "corner" which, if you can believe this, does not distinguish an inside corner ("rincon") from an outside corner (esquina). :)

  44. Eorr said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    Peak is from pike (spear) and became a separate word in the 16th century (pike to peak), although the word pike was used to refer to a mountaintop since the 1400's.

  45. Rohan F said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 8:52 pm

    Claire Bowern:

    "It's John Haviland, not Robert, who wrote the Guugu Yimidhirr grammar."

    My apologies – I had not long before been reading another paper by the palaeoclimatologist Neil Roberts and my mind inadvertently combined the two. o_O Yes, it's indeed John Haviland. Thanks for the correction.

  46. Beverley Charles Rowe said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 6:00 am

    It is easy to make fun of the "no word for X" cliché but there are significant differences here.

    With respect to any X, a language might have a single word or it might have a common compound word or phrase that was part of every native speaker's kit. In either case it would be crass to say the language had no word for X.

    Without those resources it might be possible to construct an ad hoc description, perhaps using a placeholder ("The thingamajig sticking out at the back").

    But if there really is a language that has no word for "time" or some such highly abstract concept, it is hard to see how its speakers could begin to talk about it. Obviously, if they then learn a language which does have the word, they can come to understand it and may even borrow it for their original language.

    It's an interesting thought experiment to try to imagine how it feels to be French and not have the concept of shallowness. "Peu profond" is functionally fine but at some semantic level it is not the same.

  47. Rodger said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 7:45 am

    bijoo said: "There are relatively few names for specific colors"

    Actually there are rather a lot of specific colour names, though you probably won't come across most of them unless you're an artist or a web designer: fuchsia, teal, cyan, magenta, vermilion and so on. Winsor and Newton have 119 different colours on their oil colour chart: http://www.winsornewton.com/products/oil-colours/artists-oil-colour/colour-chart/

    [(myl) From Berlin & Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, 1969:

    It appears now that, although different languages encode different numbers of basic color categories, a total universal inventory of exactly eleven basic color categories exists from which the eleven or fewer basic color terms of any given language are always drawn. The eleven basic color categories are white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and grey. […]

    If a language encodes fewer than eleven basic color categories, then there are strict limitations on which categories it may encode. […]

    Every language has an indefinitely large number of expressions that denote the sensation of color. Note, for example, the following English expressions: (a) crimson, (b) scarlet, (c) blond, (d) blue-green, (e) bluish, (f) lemon-colored, (g) salmon-colored, (h) the color of the rust on my aunt's old Chevrolet. But psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists have long operated with the concept of basic color term, or basic color word, which excludes forms such as (a) – (h) and includes forms like black, white, red, and green.

    The Windsor and Newton chart fits this theory nicely. For an update, see The World Color Survey.]

  48. ChrisB said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    And I was only in the last few weeks listening to a piece on The Science Show on what one could deduce from the fact that, as Gladstone said, Homer never used the word blue. Ancient Greeks were colourblind?
    Discussed here: http://www.grsampson.net/AGal.html

  49. Amondawa has no word for ‘time’? « Sentence first said,

    February 19, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    […] 2013: More links and discussion at Language Log: 'Wade Davis has no word for "dubious linguistic […]

  50. Language Log » Wade Davis has no word for “dubious linguistic claim” « memetic shift said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 1:42 am

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