No Word for . . .

April 7, 2009

The Language Log has a post compiling links to all its past discussions of the “No Word for X” phenomenon, in which someone claims that some concept is impossible to express in another language because the language has no word for it (and thus, naturally, translation is once more proven to be a fool’s errand and a lost cause). It seems to me absurd and reductive to announce that because a single word does not exist in a language, the concept doesn’t exist in the culture — I imagine it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have adopted schadenfreude into English if we hadn’t felt an emotion that was usefully described by the German word. And indeed, that is the Language Log’s project in these posts: to deconstruct the layers of misleading argumentation and erroneous assumptions in these statements.

Or take the point Mark recently made about the complete lack of dedicated vocabulary (so far) for “the processes, categories or roles involved in academic outsourcing.” He seems to be right. But does that mean I cannot describe what goes on when students cheat in my Unix course? How about “student who paid someone to write a piece of code for him so he could pass his programming course” for student academic outsourcers? Or how about using “student academic outsourcers”? Or “snivelling little cheating weasels”?

(from a post in November 2004)

And since language is so inextricably linked to culture, they often find themselves combating some hideous cultural claims:

A particularly damaging example of the No word for X fallacy is one that one hears here in Northwestern Canada. Many of the Athabascan languages of Canada have a word for “thank you” that is borrowed from French merci. In Carrier it is [mʌsi]. This fact has suggested to the ignorant that these languages previously had no word for “thank you”, from which they draw the further conclusion that their speakers had no concept of gratitude. Such a people, of course, must have been sub-human savages. The conclusion is that it’s a good thing that white people came to rescue them from their degraded traditional way of life.

(from a post in May 2006)

It’s great to get links to all these posts in one place, and they make for some fascinating reading.



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