More BS from the BBC

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Earlier today, Victor Mair was naive enough to believe a BBC "No word for X" story, and spread some of its misinformation in his post "No 'no'". He cited "The language that doesn't use 'no'", by Eileen McDougall, BBC (8/9/22); and at least in the aspect that Victor (and the headline) featured, that article is apparently nonsense. As David Eddyshaw pointed out in a comment on Victor's post, "Kusunda has negatives."

David gave a link to David E. Watters, "Notes on Kusunda Grammar", Himalayan Linguistics 2006. Here's a link to the relevant section of Watters' paper, 5.5.4 Negation.

David adds "I really wouldn't rely on BBC future for anything linguistic." I'd adjust this to "…for anything in science, engineering, or scholarship". Some of past coverage of the reasons:

"Parrot telepathy at the BBC" (1/28/2004)
"Stupid fake pet communication tricks" (1/29/2004)
"More junk science from the BBC" (3/10/2004)
"The decline of the BBC" (3/10/2004)
"Chatnannies debunked" (3/31/2004)
"Chatnannies update" (4/3/2004)
"We are all Big Brother" (4/15/2004)
"Talking chimp" (4/7/2004)
"The most untranslatable word" (6/23/2004)
"Transmutation of wood chips at the BBC" (8/28/2004)
"Enhance breast size by 80%" (4/9/2005)
"Tudor linguistic homogeneity" (7/29/2005)
"The Agatha Christie Code: stylometry, serotonin and the oscillation overthruster" (12/26/2005)
"The brave new world of computational neurolinguistics" (12/27/2005)
"Linguists have different brains" (4/7/2006)
"How much do those red and blue jellybeans predict about linguistic ability?" (4/17/2006)
"Maurice Saatchi, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/23/2006)
"We feel sad because we say ü" (7/21/2006)
"It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section", 8/26/2006
"Vicky Pollard's revenge" (1/2/2007)
"The apotheosis of bad science at the BBC", 5/27/2007
"Clueless credulity at the BBC: The stuff of legend", 1/23/2008
"It's not easy seeing green", 3/2/2015
"Himba color perception", 3/17/2015

From the last of those posts:

[T]he striking and impressive assertions made in the documentary must be completely discounted, and we learn yet again that the BBC deserves shockingly little credibility in reporting on science. I wrote about this a decade ago ("It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section", 8/26/2006), and I don't think that things have gotten any better, though I've given up complaining about it.

Of course there's another reason to discount the "No 'no' in Kusunda" story, namely the fact that "No word for X" stories are pretty much always false.



  1. Y said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 3:53 pm

    See also the more nuanced discussion in Donohue, Gautam and Pokharel, 2014, Negation and nominalization in Kusunda, Language 90(3):737

    The essential quote is, "The reader should not think that negation is not a clearly marked category in Kusunda." What Donohue et al. say is that negation is typically marked as irrealis in (non-imperative) verbal clauses, but that other strategies exist to unambiguously express negation, e.g. by rephrasing the sentence using negative existentials, or by attaching a negative morpheme to a nominalized clause.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 4:00 pm

    "No standard way of negating a sentence," which is the claim contradicted by what David E. linked to, is a different claim from the more headline-grabbing "No word for 'no.'"

    In respect of the latter, I think of Japanese, where the sociolinguistic taboos about ever using the word that does, in fact, mean "no" are sufficiently strong that the primary challenge for the foreign learner is to identify all the circumlocutions that are intended to imply "no" without being so vulgar as to actually use the taboo word. (This after having been taught that they should generally themselves never utter the word for "no" they may have just been taught, because their odds of successfully identifying a social situation in which it would be acceptable to do so are so low.) In a moribund language with very few potential informants to do fieldwork with, you might never get past a taboo like that and find out the word that the informant is reluctant to utter even though it's in his lexicon.

  3. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

    Thanks, Y.

    That (apart from being intrinsically very interesting) also actually sheds some light on just what it was that the intrepid reporter misunderstood.

    (Languages without recursion I can believe in. Languages without negation, now …)

    "linguists say Kusunda does not have the set, rigid grammatical rules or structures found in most languages"

    I bet they don't. What "linguists"? Who? What are their names?

    [(myl) Watters' grammar makes it crystal clear that the "no rules or structures" statement is nonsense. It would be somewhat interesting to learn what the writer misinterpreted to reach that conclusion, at least for those interested in the etiology of error.]

  4. jkw said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 4:15 pm

    Some languages really don't have a word for something common, and instead use a short phrase for it. Irish really doesn't have a word for yes or no. Instead, you often say "Is ea" for yes or "Ni ea" for no, which are the equivalent of "it is" and "it isn't". Although if you listen to native Irish speakers, you would think that Irish has a word for yes that is pronounced like "shay". Irish will also often repeat the verb from a question when answering the question, either with or without negation – for example, if someone asks 'did you run here?', the common responses would be 'I ran' or 'I didn't run' rather than an equivalent to yes or no. So the concept of yes and no are clearly represented, just not with a single word.

    But it would be hard to believe that a language really doesn't have a way to express negation. It would be very difficult to communicate common concepts in such a language. Whether something has or has not been done and whether something does or does not exist is such an important part of communication that every language will have a clear way of expressing those concepts.

    [(myl) Indeed. There are lots of things for which English doesn't "have a word", though we have a standard short phrase: "coffee table", "pole lamp", "ski lift", "phase of the moon", …

    So our "No word for X" archive is really a "No way to say X" archive.]

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 4:59 pm

    I am now wondering, albeit speculatively, whether the BBC story got fuddled in part because of using "I don't want tea" as the example of the negated sentence that's allegedly hard to express. One can very easily imagine a society in that part of the world with social politeness norms around the perhaps-ritualistic-and-pro-forma offering of tea to a guest that would make direct refusal Not the Done Thing and thus lead to vague circumlocutions instead. Perhaps there's no possible example sentence that couldn't get muddled up with taboos and politeness norms in some hypothetical culture, but surely some are lower risk than others.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 5:46 pm

    "No word for X" stories are pretty much always false.

    I.e., they are not always false.

    As for BBC always being prohibited on Language Log, it is not.

  7. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

    It does actually seem from the paper that Y linked to that there is a real potential *grammatical* ambiguity (and not just a cultural reluctance to contradict) with future clauses in Kusunda, because the grammatical resources for expressing negation of verbal clauses involve nominalisation along with existential negation, and these constructions can't have future reference. Moreover, even other kinds of verbal clauses apparently *may* be ambiguous, although this can always be worked around. (This actually seems to me to be quite remarkable enough to be going on with, if valid, for all that the BBC person plainly didn't understand the matter at all.)

    Their arguments against Watters' analyses don't strike me as absolutely watertight, though their final paragraph, about the differences you get when you rely primarily on elicitation as opposed to analysing more-or-less spontaneous real interchange, seems very much to the point. Ouch …

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 5:52 pm

    jlw: But it would be hard to believe that a language really doesn't have a way to express negation.

    Nobody said that Kusunda is incapable of expressing negation.

  9. Philip Anderson said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 5:54 pm

    This is common in Celtic languages. In Welsh, the usual way of replying to a question is to repeat the verb, as affirmative or negative: wyt ti’n mynd? Ydw/nac ydw. So there is not a single word for yes or no, which is hard work for learners, and unbelievable for some English speakers. Ie and nage are used where the verb isn’t emphasised in the question, but they aren’t general.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 5:57 pm

    Be wary of fallacies of reductio ad absurdum.

  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 6:20 pm

    @Phillip Anderson:

    Welsh also has a perfectly good word for "yes" in the *past*, of course …

    The claim implied in the BBC article is more radical than merely lacking words for "yes" and "no" (like Latin) though, being about negation in general:

    "there is no standard way of negating a sentence. Indeed, the language has few words implying anything negative. Instead, context is used to convey the exact meaning"

    Admittedly, this does not explicitly claim that there is no *other* way to express negation, though I think that is very much implied. By the *context* …

    In Kusaal (my favourite language) there is "no standard way" of negating a sentence. The negative particle "not" varies by mood, and various verbs don't use it but have suppletive forms instead. None of this is particularly unusual cross-linguistically …

    *English" has "few words implying anything negative", now I think of it. "No", "not", "n"t" … not very impressive compared with Kusaal …

  12. VVOV said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 6:24 pm

    Even if one were to forgive the reporter for their description of the issues around negation, the claims that “Kusunda does not have the set, rigid grammatical rules or structures found in most languages” and that “Ironically, these rare qualities – a large part of what makes Kusunda so fascinating to linguists – are partly why it has struggled to continue” (implying that topologically unusual languages are inherently more vulnerable to extinction??) make it clear that the author has no idea how to write about language/linguistics.

  13. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 7:09 pm

    This irrealis/negative overlap actually is quite interesting. It seems not altogether unnatural: one can see how "not really" slides easily into plain "not at all."

    There is a common phenomenon, especially in West African languages, of so-called "discontinuous pasts" morphing into contrary-to-fact markers (a "discontinuous past" is a sort of anti-current-relevance past, e.g. "I was eating groundnuts [but I'm not any more].")

    In this case, the slide is from "not at present" to "not really."

  14. Arthur Baker said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 7:38 pm

    @jkw and Philip Anderson,
    Thanks for your interesting comments. Some years ago, I noticed a similar feature in the English of a young Irish woman, one of my co-workers in Australia. She always responded to questions (in English) requiring a yes/no answer with replies such as "I have", "I haven't", "he did", "she didn't", "I will" etc, and almost never said "yes" or "no". She didn't speak a word of Irish, but somehow that feature of the Irish language had crept into her English. It made me smile every time I heard it. I'm wondering if it's a common feature among Irish speakers of English.

  15. Y said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 10:54 pm

    The BBC article implicitly asks, "why should we care about Kusunda?" To its credit, it starts by saying that the community wants it so. But then it looked like they pressured Dr. Gautam into answering the implicit question, "what's special about the language?" "Why should it belong in a glass case in the museum of languages?" And that was the answer Gautam managed to come up with. I'm not crazy about that approach.

    To be fair, the title ("The language that doesn't use 'no'") is much worse than the actual presentation ("If you want to say "I don't want tea", for example, you might use the verb to drink, but in an adjusted form which indicates a very low probability – synonymous with the speaker's desire – of the drinking of tea.") That's an awkward but not absurd way to present the concept of irrealis in Kusunda.

    To be unfair, Russian and Hebrew don't have a verb "to have". Are their speakers are reluctant to talk about possessing things?

  16. Chris Button said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 12:36 am

    Try putting this from the grammar into layman language:

    For most verbs in Kusunda there is, what appears to be, a three-way tense distinction– past, present, and future. By contrast, and central to our understanding of the three-waydistinction, however, Class I verbs have only a two-way distinction. Past and presenttime are generally grouped together into a “realis” mode, and its opposite, “irrealis,”marks future time and possibility. Realis, in some cases, however, can also occur withfuture events, especially where certainty is high; such events are “perceptually located inthe real world” (Elliott 2000). Elliott claims that this is the case for a number ofAustralian languages; “tense does not necessarily reflect reality status” (Elliott 2000:68).Evidence suggests that the realis–irrealis distinction is older and more primary thanthe so-called a “past–present–future” distinction. In fact, past tense (see Table 3)appears to be only an added category; it occupies some of the same semantic space asrealis (see §5.5.4 on Negation) and, more significantly, its absence does not constitute a“present” tense (indicated by the “strike through” in Table 3). Rather, the absence of“past” is only realis. The major difference between past and realis is that past has anunequivocal past–completive reading, while realis is used more frequently in utteranceswith a kind of “neutral” or “timeless” sense …

    There are two negation patterns – one for realis and another for irrealis. In Class II verbs the distinction between past and realis is neutralized in the negative, i.e. past does not have a negation pattern distinct from realis.

    This lends support to our earlierhypothesis that realis and irrealis are the original and basic distinctions in Kusunda, while past is a later development. It also becomes more clear under negation that the distinction between realis andirrealis is, in fact, not related to “real” and “not real,” but is more closely related to“actual” and “possible.” Thus realis affirmative statements assert something to befactual, and irrealis affirmative statements assert something to be possibly true. In thenegative, “realis” asserts as true that something did not happen (or is not happening),while irrealis asserts that even possible truth is not likely to become fact.

  17. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 1:02 am

    This is not about the "yes" / "no" words, but about "negation".

    An article entitled "The Dravidian zero negative: diachronic context of its morphogenesis and conceptualisation" by Christiane Pilot-Raichoor in Jan Wohlgemuth and Michael Cysouw ed., Rara & rarissima : documenting the fringes of linguistic diversity, Berlin : De Gruyter Mouton 2010, 267-303, begins with:

    The Dravidian ‘zero negative’, as Master (1946) called it, is a clear structural rarum (see Section 2) which has failed to be properly acknowledged, even by the Dravidianists who generally reduced it to a phonetic accident (*ā > ∅), that leaves the negative forms without any sign of negation. The existence of this strange construction, attested in several languages over a period of two thousand years, cannot be questioned. The debate surrounding it bears entirely on its origin.

    Also by Matti Miestamo, "Negatives without negators", in Jan Wohlgemuth and Michael Cysouw ed., Rethinking Universals. How Rarities affect Linguistic Theory, Berlin : De Gruyter Mouton 2010, 170-194, begins with:

    Das grammatische Raritätenkabinett (fn.1) assembled by Frans Plank features the following rarum concerning the expression of clausal negation (number 33):
    “negation expressed negatively, by omission of material present in affirmative clause”.
    Well-known instances of this so-called Zero Negative construction are found in some Dravidian languages in which negation can be signaled by the mere absence of tense marking without an overt marker of negation. In this paper, I take a look at this rare type of negative construction from a typological perspective.

    I don't know which is the first and which is the follow-up because each refers to the other in the references. In any case I think both are interesting to look into.

  18. Stan Carey said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 5:59 am

    "I'm wondering if it's a common feature among Irish speakers of English."

    @Arthur: It is. The use of such circumlocutions instead of yes and no is common and widespread even among the majority who speak little or no Irish habitually (though of course we also use yes and no). I don't know if their prevalence is greater among Irish-language speakers, or among people in the west where the Irish influence is stronger, but I wouldn't be surprised.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 6:43 am

    We have a similar phenomenon in Mandarin, where

    yǒu 有 have; possess; there is; exist = yes
    méiyǒu 沒有 not have; not possess; there is no; does not exist = no

    And there are many other circumlocutions for "yes" and "no", both in Mandarin (as well as other modern Sinitic topolects) and in Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic going back three millennia.

  20. ardj said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 8:12 am

    At least one of thelinks has got confused.

    The post "More junk science from the BBC at
    refers to an expert. Ray Girvan, who has put paid to the BBC's frog story. Unfortunately the link there to Mr Girvan explanation takes one to a site where a Ray Girvan offers to create websites (whatever it may have done in the past) –

  21. ardj said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 8:20 am

    Sorry, should have re-read the above: the redirected site is not that of Ray Girvan but 'RayGiran'

  22. wanda said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 10:33 am

    Honest question. If someone says that they want to get coffee or lunch with you, and you say something noncommittal like, "That would be nice sometime," you are pretty much turning them down. Is this "negation through irrealis" like that?

  23. Coby said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 12:19 pm

    Y: Russian and Hebrew don't have a verb "to have"
    Actually Russian does have one, иметь, but Russian-speakers prefer to use the "there is with.." circumlocution, similar to Hebrew.
    Another similarity: the zero copula.

  24. Dan Riley said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 4:38 pm

    Waiting for the “50 words for no” post…

  25. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 7:05 pm

    Zero negative in English.

    One of the things I learned when I came to West Phiilly nearly 45 years ago and was exposed to spoken English for the first time was the difference between:

    I can dó that


    I cán't do that.

    The -t in the latter is almost always inaudible, and what distinguishes them are the place of stress, sentence intonation and the reduction of the unstressed part. When I say it in a flat way, I was often asked " Can you or can't you?"

  26. Arthur Baker said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 9:08 pm

    Stan Carey, thanks.

  27. Kate Bunting said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 3:07 am

    I noticed that, in the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian, the half-Irish Stephen Maturin almost never says 'yes' or 'no', but 'I have', 'he did not' etc. I took the trouble to look up the fact that Irish doesn't have these words.

  28. Chris Button said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:55 am

    @ Hitoshi Kumamoto,

    You would have found other varieties of English, where the vowels in “can” and “can’t” are distinct, to be easier in that regard.

  29. Chris Button said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:56 am

    Although schwa reduction of “can” often makes them distinct in American English anyway

  30. Chris Button said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:57 am

    Sorry, I meant Hiroshi (r and t are next to each other on the keypad)

  31. Myroslava said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 3:59 pm

    @Y and @Coby

    Like Coby said, Russian does have the verb иметь, but the supposed preference to circumlocution is not a matter of preference but rather of syntactical considerations and _sometimes_ register.

    For simpler sentences like "I have a cat", the "circumlocution" is not just preferred but basically the only correct way to phrase this: if you say "Я имею кота/кошку", you are immediately understood to be a foreigner with poor command of Russian.

    But whenever the concept of "having" has to be nominali[s/z]ed, which is often done by way of using the infinitive form of a verb, the verb springs up. E. g., from a random search, a sentence "In order to get into (meaning "participate") the [cat] exhibition, [it] is enough *to have* a cat that is at least 3 months old" does have "to have" — "Чтобы попасть на выставку, достаточно *иметь* кошку или кота, возраст которого не меньше трех месяцев" ("to have" is the subject of the dependent clause, "is enough" is the predicate). It is possible to express this via the circumlocution route, but that requires a clunky _additional_ dependent clause.

    Whenever the having is part of a phrase where it's not the head, it will be expressed by a verb because otherwise clunkiness will ensue (the head will have other things to do beside being put in an indirect case to express the notion of having).

    VP/predicate: "She wants to have children" — "Она хочет иметь детей", although "She has children" is, again, "У нее есть дети". Saying "Она хочет, чтобы у нее были дети" is not ungrammatical, but it is once again an unnecessary dependent clause, plus it sounds like the implied level of desire/agency in the process is much reduced.

    NP: "Those who want to have a cat will have to …." — "Желающим иметь кота придется…" — "Those who want" has to be placed in the case agreeing with the modal "have", so it can't simultaneously be in the case required for the "circumlocution".

    "X will have consequences" with "have" "spelled out" places more emphasis on X; the "circumlocution" emphasi[s/z]es the consequences.

    Lots of syntactical constraints and pragmatical quirks, really. Not just preference.

    From my limited knowledge of Hebrew, it does not shy away from dependent clauses with שיש…, which is how it copes with the absence of "to have".

  32. Dara Connolly said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 4:39 pm

    "I'm wondering if it's a common feature among Irish speakers of English."

    @Arthur: It is. The use of such circumlocutions instead of yes and no is common

    As an Irish person, I agree. Just saying "yes" feels somehow "abrupt" or slightly rude. It feels much more comfortable to say "I did", or "he was".

  33. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    August 25, 2022 @ 6:51 pm

    In a motivation speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger (which "Leaves the audience Speechless"): (around 6:15)

    he says: "So whenever someone said to me it can't be done I heard it can be done".

    He also had a difficulty in distinguishing these two phrases.

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