This post sort of continues on from my earlier post about “untranslatable” words.
The Happiness Dictionary (2018, Piatkus) by Tim Lomas is a book which has good intentions, but it makes some startling and incorrect claims about language. My main contentions with Lomas’ claims are:
- He plays fast and loose with semantics. Describing the meaning of a word with other words does not give the meaning of that word, but Lomas seems to claim it does.
- You can’t check his sources because they’re not there.
- He misrepresents some linguistic terms.
- He uses research on one language to make claims about a family of unrelated languages.
- He fails to see the logical conclusions of his claims about language.
Tim Lomas’ book starts off describing different things that make us feel happy:
- The serenity of lying in your partner’s arms
- That slightly guilty pleasure of indulging in a rich chocolate cake
- The giddy liberation of leaving work on a Friday afternoon and embarking upon a longed-for holiday
- The joy of seeing your child take her first steps, or say his first word
- That moment when life seems totally perfect, and you wish you could stop the clock forever
According to Lomas, “the trouble with happiness is not that it means nothing, but that it means too much” (p. 1). This leads him to conclude that the meaning of happiness is too generic and that we need words to describe very specific instances of happiness. He feels that because happiness is vague, English speakers may not be able to differentiate between the things in the list above – as well as all the other things which cause us happiness.
But Lomas doesn’t seem to understand that the meaning of happiness is intentionally vague. We need a word that isn’t specific so that it can cover various situations. Of course, Lomas’s premise is a great way to start his book, which is a lexicon of words from other languages that are related to happiness. But it’s only the start of the linguistic problems.
It is… how you say… nonsense?
Lomas main premise is that by learning words from other languages that are related to happiness, we will be able to better experience happiness ourselves. The idea is that if we have a word for specific feeling, then we can experience that feeling. Or, if we as English speakers lack a word for some feeling, then we cannot truly experience that feeling as good as people who speak a language which has a word for it. He claims that the words in his book have the power to cause people to view the world differently.
Lomas calls the words in his book “untranslatable” but he concedes that that is a bit of a misnomer. He says these words from other languages (or at least “a sense of their meaning”) can be conveyed in English in a phrase. For Lomas, “untranslatability” means that English lacks “an exact equivalent” of the words in his lexicon. I suppose this means that English doesn’t have one single word that covers all of the senses and connotations of the words he has listed, but this fact isn’t exactly ground breaking. I mean, it’s literally the nature of language and translation.
Lomas takes this a step further and claims that learning these “untranslatable” words has the power to transform our lives and how we see the world. He says:
[Untranslatable words] allow us to conceptualize familiar feelings, such as happiness, with greater clarity by helping us to sift it into fine-grained elements. They may also give voice to sensations we’ve hazily experienced, but previously lacked the ability to vocalize. They can even lead us to new experiences we hadn’t known possible, such as the far horizons of nirvana. Truly, untranslatable words are portals to new worlds. (pp. 2-3)
But wait. This means he just contradicted the start of the book. We need to translate the foreign word into English using a few words, but then that means we have a way to describe the feelings we supposedly don’t have words for and therefore can’t describe. This is circular reasoning and we can use it for any word.
Think about it like this. If we want to describe the meaning of a word, we need to use other words. But if I describe the meaning of something, that doesn’t mean that I actually describe what I understand as that word’s meaning. Let’s take the Finnish word from the last post and from Lomas’ book: sisu. I can tell you that sisu means grit and perseverance. If you know what grit and perseverance mean, then great. But I haven’t actually described what I understand sisu to mean. I’ve merely linked some words together. I’m still operating within language and I haven’t related these words to my mental representation of them or to what the words are about, i.e. what they refer to. And we don’t even have to cross languages for this problem. If I say that droll means humorous or “having an odd quality,” it’s exactly the same: I’ve described droll with other words, but I haven’t described what I understand droll to mean. There are some ways to get around this, but that’s not the focus of this book or this review (see Riemer pp. 24-38).
Lomas comes back to the “untranslatability” aspect of the words in his book later. He writes:
You will have noticed that Buddha and nirvana are not English words. Yet we have come to use them for want of adequate translations. (p. 14)
But hold up. I have noticed that taco and burrito and hamburger are not English words. Have we come to use them “for want of adequate translations”? No, we haven’t. We use them because they describe the thing that we want them to describe. We didn’t translate Buddha into BuddyChrist or some such nonsense. And we know that nirvana is nirvana. Knowing about nirvana doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a Foo Fighters fan.
A small but major problem with this book is the missing endnotes. Lomas has added endnotes to many of his sentences in order to back up his claims. But when we turn to the page where the endnotes should be, we are presented with this:
In the process of researching and writing this book, I have consulted numerous published sources (mostly academic papers). These sources are acknowledged with a number at the relevant place in the text, which will enable you to delve deeper into any specific topic that interests you. However, in order to save space (and paper!), I have placed the corresponding details of the citations on my website at: www.drtimlomas.com/thehappinessdictionary
Okaaayyy… but if you go to that link… you’ll find a 404 message:
This is very not cool.
It’s not on the Wayback Machine either. Grr.
Seeing with your mouth
Later in the preface, Lomas develops the idea that the language we speak can alter our view of the world. This theory is also known as linguistic relativity, or Whorfianism, and it is very controversial. You wouldn’t know that from reading Lomas’ book though. Instead, he offers a metaphor. For Lomas, the language we speak operates in our mind like a map. Rather than being a map of a city, our mental-linguistic map is a map of our emotions (broadly). And the more we learn about different kinds of emotions – or for Lomas, the more words related to happiness that we learn – the more fine-grained our mental-linguistic map becomes, i.e. the better we will be able to experience our emotions and the world. This may sound all fine and good, but Lomas really leans into it. He says:
This process [of increasing your knowledge of music over time] similarly accompanies the cultivation of a palate for fine wine, an eye for great paintings, or a mind for the labyrinths of philosophy. It enhances not only our knowledge of these realms but, even more excitingly, our experience of them. Our refined maps allow us to see more clearly, hear more keenly, taste more sensitively, understand more deeply and appreciate more fully. Most pertinently for us here, the process of zooming in can even augment our experiences of happiness. (pp. 12-13)
So for Lomas, learning new words for degrees of happiness is akin to learning to differentiate between various styles of music. On top of that, we can not only differentiate between styles of music, but we can also somehow experience them better. There’s only one problem: none of this has anything to do with language. Even if learning more about music and wine and paintings enhances our experience of them (whatever that means), it doesn’t mean that learning new words will help us experience the world in a different way. Lomas’ metaphor isn’t accurate because his premise that language determines how we see the world is wrong.
John McWhorter has written a book about this very topic. It’s called The Language How: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. I recommend reading it if linguistic relativity/Whorfianism interests you. I wish Lomas had read it. I’ll just summarize a few good points that McWhorter makes which are relevant to Lomas’ claims here. First, language isn’t a requirement for increasing our knowledge about some cultural aspect, such as music or food. McWhorter notes that there are several languages in New Guinea which have one word for eat and drink. Now, in line with Lomas’ metaphor about cultivating our palate for fine wine, are we to assume that these people in New Guinea can’t even comprehend the difference between eating and drinking? Or that us English speakers can somehow taste better than the people in New Guinea? Lomas and other Whorfians would prefer not to dwell on this aspect of their theory, but it does show how the links between language and culture which they draw are untenable. As McWhorter says, “languages seem almost willful in how little their makeup has to do with what its speakers are like” (McWhorter 2014: 49).
I wish I could say that Lomas’ book gets on firm linguistics footing. But unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have done his research very well. Lomas discusses the infamous “50 words for snow” hoax, and he says that:
Its veracity [that of the “Eskimos have 50 words for snow” hoax] hinges on what we mean by a “word”. Eskimo-Aleut languages – the overarching category to which the various individual tongues belong – are agglutinative. That is, complex words are created by combining morphemes. For example, the West Greenlandic word for ice – siku – gives rise to several compounds, including sikuliaq (pack ice), sikuaq (new ice) and sikurluk (melting ice). In such languages, it is possible to create a near infinity of such words simply by combining various morphemes. (p. 16)
That is not what “agglutinative” means. Or at least, it’s not entirely correct. And he misunderstands what “morpheme” means here. The term “morpheme” is used to describe the smallest unit of language that can carry meaning. There are free morphemes – what we usually think of when we think of “words” – such as skip and jump and star. There are also bound morphemes, which can’t stand on their own. Examples of bound morphemes in English are the past tense –ed and the genitive marker ’s, both of which are pronounced in various ways depending on context, but always spelled the same way. So English is not an agglutinative language, but it combines morphemes.
Lomas also mixes up written and spoken language a bit here. Remember that the spaces between words in English is somewhat arbitrary and that there are no spaces in spoken language. English and West Greenlandic are kind of the same here. There’s no reason why we couldn’t attach new to the noun it is describing (in written language) and have the same goshdarn thing as the West Greenlandic speakers – newice. Also, West Greenlandic has packice, but English has icepack so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And English has living room with a space, but bedroom without a space because it’s all arbitrary. English got Superman and Batman (no spaces), but Spider-man (hyphen) and Iron Man and Wonder Woman (spaces). Because it’s super arbitrary.
Lomas does make a good linguistic point on the subject though. He notes that although English speakers and West Greenlandic speakers may have the same number of terms for or related to snow, it’s the actual usage that matters. This is true: usage does matter more than hypotheticals. But he says that West Greenlandic speakers use terms related to snow more often than English speakers because their “culture has evolved in a physical environment that is utterly dominated by snow in a way that most English-speaking cultures are not” (p. 16). He then goes on to say that because of the environment, Eskimo-Aleut languages have “many more words in common usage (as opposed to hypothetical phrases) that relate to snow – perhaps as many as a thousand distinct lexemes, by some estimates.”
There are a couple of problems with this claim. First, the “1,000 distinct lexemes” points to a reference which is probably Magga (2006). Of course, I can’t be sure because Lomas’ endnotes are nowhere to be found, but he makes the same claim in another book that does include the endnotes (the book is Translating Happiness and a review is coming). But Lomas seriously misinterprets Magga’s claim. Magga says
In the list presented by Jernsletten, there are 175–180 basic stems on snow and ice.
If we add other related terms (verbs and adjectives) of the type mentioned above, and if we include all possible derivations, we may probably very easily come up to something like 1,000 lexemes with connections to snow, ice, freezing and melting. (Magga 2006: 34)
BUT – Magga’s research is about the Northern Sami language, not West Greenlandic or even the Eskimo-Aleut languages. Lomas applies Magga’s claim about one language to an entire family of unrelated languages. This would be like me making claims about West Germanic languages based on an article about Japanese. I don’t know how this got past a review – maybe it wasn’t checked? Second, Magga does not claim that there are 1,000 distinct lexemes in common usage. He just says that we could maybe sort of come up with 1,000 lexemes if we felt like it.
Lomas’ claim about the words for snow is silly on the face of it though. (And I should note that Lomas isn’t the only person pushing “50 words for snow” claim). Think about other cultures in other environments. Does anyone say that Hawaiian speakers or Javanese speakers have 1,000 lexemes for sand? Those environments are dominated by sand in a way that English-speaking cultures are not. But people don’t talk about their words for sand because the “50 words for snow” hoax has become a meme (Sorry, Hawaiian speakers! Just kidding, this idea is demeaning).
Lomas almost grasps this point. He says:
But just think of how many words and phrases we have coined for a much more familiar form of precipitation in the UK: rain. There must be dozens of them. That’s because rain is enough of a presence here – and occurs in a sufficient variety – that the effort to differentiate between its myriad forms seems justified. (p. 17)
Putting aside the fact that it seems Lomas didn’t check how many words and phrases English has for rain (beyond “there must be dozens”), there’s a bigger mistake here. How come speakers of Eskimo-Aleut languages get thousands of words for snow, but English speakers only get dozens of words for rain? Because he’s mythologizing the Eskimo-Aleut speakers. That’s why.
And finally, the relationship between grammar and how we see the world is shaky at best. Sure, Northern Sami speakers may have the ability to use thousands of “words” for snow, but consider the conclusions we would have to draw if we said that Northern Sami speakers are able to see snow better than English speakers because of the grammar of their language. Does this work for other words and other languages? Such as Ancient Greek? Riemer says:
In Ancient Greek, for example, a single verb, tithēmi, which means ‘put’, has several hundred different forms, which convey differences of person, number, tense and mood, such as e-thē-ka ‘I put’, tithei-ētēn ‘you two might put’, thō-men ‘let us put’, etc. But these different forms only alter some aspects of the meaning of the word. (Riemer 2010: 16; bolding mine)
Surely the verb meaning put was in common usage in Ancient Greece. Does this mean that Ancient Greek speakers could somehow experience the act of putting better than modern English speakers? If you think so, would you like to buy a bridge?
But of course, that’s exactly the claim that Lomas makes. He says that the language we speak literally allows us to see the world differently:
So, what’s the significance of these words? First, it’s useful to make fine-grained distinctions about phenomena that are particularly salient, whether you are an Inuit judging the snow’s suitability for sledging, or an Englishman deliberating whether to persevere with his stroll. More importantly, though, knowledge of the perfect word for a given circumstance may enable us to see more, understand more and experience more. [emphasis Lomas’]
As a Londoner, imagine if I were whisked away to a remote Arctic community. My hosts and I would look out on precisely the same frozen landscape, but I would see nothing but undifferentiated snow. I would struggle to register how fast it was falling, the size of the crystals, how it was settling on the ground. In comparison to the locals, I would be blind to all of these nuances and dozens more besides. (p. 17)
What the heck? Would someone from an Arctic community have the same problem looking at rain if they were whisked away to London? Or if I was transported to Ancient Greece, would I not be able to conceive of the ways people put things in the same way that the Ancient Greeks could conceive of it?
In the words of Stefani (2004), “this shit is bananas”. Speakers of Eskimo-Aleut languages can’t see snow better because they have more words for it than Lomas does. Imagine if Lomas was alone in the arctic for a few months or years. Would he never become more accustomed to the environment because he lacked words to describe it? Did Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway get worse at living on that island because he didn’t know what to call the fish?
Nothing to see here
That’s the preface to the book. The rest of it is Lomas explaining the meanings of the words he’s piled up. I suppose that Lomas’ goal is noble. If learning these words makes people feel better, then great. I mean, I suppose that putting up motivational posters at work or sharing inspirational quotes on social media is fine, but I don’t want to read a whole book of them. Maybe you do? I guess you shouldn’t go learning any more words for sadness though, lest they magically bring you down in more complex ways than you can conceive of right now.
Magga, O. H. 2006. “Diversity in Saami Terminology for Reindeer, Snow, and Ice”. International Social Science Journal 58 (187), 25-34.
McWhorter, John. 2014. The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Every Language. Oxford: OUP.
Riemer, Nick. 2010. Introducing Semantics. Cambridge: CUP.