If you learn about attempts at spelling reform in English, you’re bound to come across Noah Webster’s suggestions. Webster is considered the grandfather of American English since he had such a profound influence on it in the early days. His Blue-backed speller (basically a school grammar book) went through 385 editions and sold 60 million copies. Holy cow! And his dictionary? Well, that old thing is still being updated and it still has his name on it.
Some of Webster’s spelling reforms stuck. He’s the reason US English doesn’t spell honor, color or neighbor with a u. But others not so much. He suggested spelling women as wimmin. I’m sure he meant well, but try saying that out loud and not sounding like a person who definitely doesn’t like women. He suggested korus for chorus and dawter for daughter. You can see the idea behind these suggestions – they simplify the relationship between sound and spelling. The only reason they look wrong or strange to us is because they didn’t catch on. We learned that daughter was spelled with “augh” instead of “aw” and so everything else looks rong (or “wrong”).
And that brings us to another one of Webster’s suggestions that didn’t catch on… or didn’t catch on yet! In a similar fashion to korus and dawter and honor and color, Webster suggested that we spell machine as masheen. Looks fine to me! But of course, we all know that no one spells it that way. And that’s because we’re still in the first century of the millennium. We’re going to have to wait another 500 years for the spelling of machine to change to masheen.
Because that’s exactly how it’s spelled in the movie Idiocracy. (Spoiler alert for a movie that came out over 15 years ago.) The plot takes place in the year 2505. At the end of the movie, the protagonist is taken to a theme park ride called the “Time Masheen”:
I’m sure the director Mike Judge was having fun here – or maybe he’s a lexicography buff and he was tipping his hat to ol’ Noah. I know that this spelling of masheen is supposed to show how stupid people have become in the future, but spelling reform is actually a good idea. Some argue that spelling reform will have to happen sooner or later in English, especially as we get further away from the current spelling of words due to sound shifts, so why not now? And there’s the fact that our antiquated spelling system makes learning unnecessarily difficult. But there are other problems associated with spelling reform, such as choosing which variety of English to base the spelling on when there are so many different varieties. Food for thought.
A New York Times article from 1977 article rolled across my screen recently (courtesy of Mark Harris). It concerns language change and boy is it a doozy. The article asked members of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel to give their comments on some recent developments in English. Let’s take a look.
I was re-reading the HAWKEYE book by Matt Fraction and David Aja and wouldn’t you know it, in issue #3 there is some dialogue relevant to this blog. The character Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) scolds the character Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye… don’t ask) for dangling a preposition. Check it out:
But wait a minute! Is that really a preposition? Haykeye Barton is talking about the word “to” at the end of Hawkeye Bishop’s sentence:
‘Cause I’m about to.
So is that a preposition? It depends on who you ask.
There’s the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, and even the leviathan called the Oxford English Dictionary. But there is only one SUPER DICTIONARY!
Put out in 1978 as a kids dictionary featuring DC Comics characters, this amazing work became internet famous sometime in the 2010s. (Full disclosure: every dictionary is an amazing work, this one is just extra amazing). Not least because of this absolutely wild definition of forty:
And now, because nothing and no one in comics stays dead for ever, the SUPER DICTIONARY has an update.
There’s an article in the New Yorker about a glossary of “untranslatable” words. The glossary is put together by Tim Lomas, a psychologist who got interested in the idea of untranslatable words after hearing a talk about the Finnish word sisu. Of course, “untranslatable” doesn’t mean what it looks like it means, as I was quick to point out on Twitter:
— Joe McVeigh is also @EvilJoeMcVeigh@mstdn.social (@EvilJoeMcVeigh) May 28, 2019
So we can clearly translate these words. There just may not be a 1:1 translation for each of them. But as anyone who has ever done any translating will tell you, that’s so obvious that it barely needs mentioning. But there’s something else behind this idea and I want to open it up a little bit.
In layman’s terms
Alas, the folk linguistic meaning of 'untranslatable' (i.e. 'not lexicalised') is different from the linguistic. It is a fact that we will have to accept…
Marten van der Meulen pointed out on Twitter that Lomas and the New Yorker mean something different with “untranslatable” than a linguist or translator would. What they mean is that there’s no equivalent single word in other languages (usually English) which means the same thing that the “untranslatable” word does. So there’s no way we can “translate” the Finnish word sisu into English because it means many things and it is uniquely tied up into Finnish culture and identity (we’ll get to that in a second). Instead, the meaning of sisu is context dependent – sometimes it means perseverance, sometimes it means grit, sometimes it means “the ability to grin and bear it” – but it is a Finnish version of all these things.
This is why linguists would probably scoff at the idea that we can’t translate sisu. All language is context dependent. The word grit means different things when it’s used in a Clint Eastwood movie than when it’s used in a boardroom. Language is context. Or meaning depends on context.
I actually use the word sisu in my Semantics class as an exercise to understand connotation, denotation and meaning. My students, who are almost all L1 Finnish speakers, give me examples of what sisu means to them. Then we talk about the core meanings of sisu and some peripheral meanings. That is, there is a list of ideas that most people would agree fits the definition of sisu. But that’s the thing – most people would agree, not all. You can do this with any concept in any language (Probably. Don’t quote me on that). Ask a few people what grit means and see how many different answers you get. But we can approach an agreed upon definition of what sisu includes. When we start to put the word in context, then the meaning starts to shift. The classroom exercise is fun because sisu is a popular word in these kinds of discussions and Finns are ready to talk about it. They see it as something very Finnish (more on that in a bit).
I think Marten is right, though. “Untranslatable” does have a different meaning for Lomas and the New Yorker. I would argue that linguists and translators probably wouldn’t use the term untranslatable, but it’s nothing new for the public to have a different definition of a word than specialists. To many people, the word grammar means punctuation and spelling. To language specialists, however, grammar means morphology and syntax; punctuation and spelling are in the realm of orthography. I like Marten’s notion of specialists understanding that “untranslatable” means something different to non-linguists and non-translators, and I think it’s something we should keep in mind. And I agree that the definition of “untranslatable” for Lomas and the New Yorker is “not lexicalized” or “there’s no single word for it”.
Speaking of morphology, many “untranslatable” words are “words” because of the morphology and spelling norms of the language. For example, another popular “untranslatable” word from Finnish is kalsarikännit. It means “getting drunk at home in your underwear, with no intention of going out”.
The word is a compound noun formed from kalsarit “underwear” and känni “drunk”. The Finnish writing system requires that kalsarikännit is written as one “word” – that is, without a space in between the two words which form the compound noun. This is not a particularly interesting thing about the Finnish language – it just does things like that. English sometimes does that too, such as in the word bedroom, but also sometimes does not, such as in the very similar two-word term living room. We could easily have the term “underwear drunk” or “underwear drinking” or even the word “underweardrunk” or “boxersdrunk” in English. And indeed, as the image of Homer Simpson shows, English speakers have a notion of what underweardrunk is. On the flip side, English doesn’t have a “word” for couch potato like Finnish does (sohvaperuna, literally “sofa+potato”), but that’s due to the writing system, not some cultural notions that Finnish speakers have but English speakers do not. Finnish would not seem to have a word for nothing. Instead the two-word phrases ei mitään and ei mikään are required in certain cases. This is a case where English orthography has merged no+thing into one “word” while Finnish has not.
I wonder how many of the words on Lomas’ list are compound nouns, or words which are one “word” because of the writing systems of the language that they come from. We could sort of say that they were invented because speakers saw a need for a term to describe the concept or action, but that hardly makes them “untranslatable”. Rather, if speakers of another language were doing a similar thing, they could easily coin their own “word” for it. Or they could translate the word, as in the case of Finnish speakers taking couchpotato and translating both words to Finnish to get sohvaperuna (these kinds of words are called calques). Or speakers could simply borrow/steal the word for the concept or action, as in the case of schadenfreude, an idea that English speakers immediately understand but don’t have a “word” for.
Identity and what’s on these lists
So which words are good enough for these kinds of lists? That would be a very interesting research topic – and in an alternate universe, Marten and me are working on that question right now. Sticking with Finnish, the language has the word jääkiekko. It refers to the sport played on ice where players use sticks to try to push a small rubber disc into the net or goal of the opposing team. English doesn’t really have a word for it. The closest term is ice hockey. Does this mean that Finnish speakers somehow understand the sport of ice hockey better than English speakers? If so, I think the English speakers in Canada would like to have a word with you. (This idea is very timely since the one-word-having Finns just won the Ice Hockey World Championships. And they beat Canada in the finals. #mörkö). The thing is jääkiekko isn’t sexy enough to make these kinds of lists. French speakers don’t have a “word” for please and instead use the phrase s’il vous plait (In certain cases? Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!), whereas Finnish speakers don’t have a “word” because for please because they either attach –isi to the verb or use ole hyvä or they use the word which also means “thank you” (kiitos). But you’re unlikely to see please on these lists. And if we want to get really boring, we can talk about how other languages don’t have a “word” for the and a and an. But these aren’t sexy enough either. Only linguists check out language for the articles. (Seriously, though, click that link. It’s a hilarious satire of these lists.)
Instead, what we’re likely to see are words that somehow fit into an identity-shaping role of the speakers. If we’re egalitarian, the words are chosen by the speakers in order to shape and control the collective identity of what it means to be a speaker of a certain language. That is, Finns put sisu on the “untranslatable” word lists because Finns generally see sisu as a positive thing and it helps to create the identity of Finnish speakers – they have perseverance and grit, in the way that British English speakers have a stiff upper lip (but go ask 10 Brits what “stiff upper lip” means and whether it’s positive). Finnish speakers can put kalsarikännit on the list because the idea of laying around drinking beer in your underwear is silly and fun (until it’s not, of course).
Yeah, identity makes sense, words that confirm a kind of perception of Other. I mean, no Dutchmen would care if some Papoean language has a specific word for 'dyke', because that's too normal. You need things that tie in with our pre-existing perception of certain cultures.
These words then help shape the identity of speakers for those who do not know the language that they come from. That is, learning about sisu helps shape English speakers’ perception of Finnish people. This is where we cross over from language to culture. The word sisu doesn’t shape our perception of Finnish speakers but rather Finnish people. I can speak Finnish (kinda sorta), but sisu doesn’t apply to me because I’m not Finnish – my parents weren’t Finnish and I wasn’t born and raised in Finland. If we’re less egalitarian with this idea, then the words that get put on the list have to fit our ideas or stereotypes of the speakers of the language. This perpetuates the myths about Inuit people having 50 words for snow. The language isn’t usually mentioned, it’s just “those natives in northern-ish Canada have a bunch of words for snow because they live in igloos”. That’s what’s behind that myth, so stop using it. Or the idea the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of “danger” and “opportunity”. This is incorrect, but it fits the stereotype in the West that people in the East are somehow smart and cunning and they can easily use these traits to their advantage, especially in the business and political world, which is where this language myth lives and thrives.
Untranslatable words from other languages?
I want to end on an idea that doesn’t usually get brought up in these discussions. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. It would seem that English is especially guilty of this, but any time you get people who speak different languages living in close proximity to each other, you’re going to have language transfer. People are going to trade words and sometimes even grammar. But when a word transfers from one language to another, the meaning and connotations don’t always come along. And as it gets used in the “new” language, it can acquire other meanings. Consider what John Waters said in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air:
GROSS: This fits into something else you write, which is, I realize now how hard it must’ve been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. So in addition to your terror at seeing hammers, what were some of your eccentricities when you were really young?
WATERS: Well, I was obsessed by car accidents. And I played car accidents. And my mother would take me to junkyards and walk around with me. And I’d be like, oh, there’s been a terrible one over here. Look at this.
WATERS: And I think, what did the junk man think? Well, what is this little ghoul? So that kind of thing.
The word ghoul comes from Arabic. It’s first attested in English in 1786 (according to the OED). But here Waters applies it to himself when he was a young child. It referred to an evil spirit that robbed graves. But later it came to mean a person “who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive” (MW). Do Arabic speakers use ghoul this way (and I’m not even bringing up the fact that there are vast differences between local varieties of Arabic)? If not, can we say that the word ghoul is “untranslatable” from English to Arabic?
What I mean to say is that, again, language and meaning are context-dependent. And they are also dependent on time. If English adopted the word sisu from Finnish, it wouldn’t really mean sisu in the same way it does for Finnish speakers who were raised in Finnish culture (the same way that English “sauna” doesn’t really mean Finnish “sauna”). It would mean something slightly different. And in time it could mean something totally different.
So those are just a few of the thoughts I had on this topic. I’ll try to get my hands on Lomas’ books to have a deeper look at what he means by “untranslatable”. And I’ll take a look at his list.
Ok, it’s been a verb for a while now. It’s not the first preposition to become a verb (there’s also out*), but it’s a recent addition and it’s very interesting. First, according to all of my students, the verb is spelled “@”. I’m willing to bet that not everyone follows this though. I don’t have much to say about @ as a verb, or nothing that you don’t already know, but I checked a few dictionaries to see if they had an entry for it. The results and links are below. Enjoy!
If Lingthusiasm and The Vocal Fries have you yearning for more linguistics, never fear! There’s a new language podcast on the map. It’s called Fiat Lex and it is (quote) “A podcast about dictionaries by people who write dictionaries. Yes, really.” The hosts are Kory Stamper and Steve Kleinedler, two lexicographers of high renown! They’re up to four episodes now and they are all great. Go check them out!
An article in Mental Floss called “25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do” attempts to educate readers on the One True Meaning™ of words in a listicle. It’s written by Paul Anthony Jones, who runs the Haggard Hawks account on Twitter and has written several books on language. I like Haggard Hawks and I enjoyed Jones’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4. That’s what makes this article so puzzling. It takes a prescriptivist stance in the meaning of words, claiming for the most part that what the words in the list originally meant is what they mean now. I find this position wrongheaded and contradictory. Words change meaning, which I’m sure Jones has no problem acknowledging, but to insist that their original meaning (or some former meaning) is the only one that’s correct is like claiming that women shouldn’t have the right to vote because, well… they used to not have the right to vote. Things change, and you either change with them or you will be left out. Language is no different in this regard.
What’s especially strange about this position (and the Mental Floss article) is that the history of English undermines the argument itself. For example, is there a certain date we can look back to when a word’s meaning was “correct”? The word deer originally meant any animal that was hunted. Are we using it wrong when we refer to what everyone knows of as a deer? No. Likewise, the word nice originally meant foolish. Now it means nice. There are scores more words like this in English. So why do some words deserve a place on lists like the one in the Mental Floss article while others do not?
Speaking of undermining the argument, the Mental Floss article references dictionaries which directly undermine the article’s claims. Lexicographers today use corpora (databases of language) to determine the meaning of words. When there are several meanings, dictionaries usually list them in descending order of how frequently each is used. Not every dictionary does this, but Merriam-Webster does and that’s the one that the Mental Floss references. (Macmillan does too)
Let’s take a look at the words in the list and see what’s going on. To be perfectly clear, this article claims that “in the dictionary […] there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted”. Dictionaries are written by lexicographers and their first job is to discover what words mean. So this article is basically saying that lexicographers aren’t doing their job. The first salvo made in the article is an attack on the figurative use of literally. It’s not on the listicle (thankfully), so I’m not going to cover it. You can see how the “misuse” of figurative literally has been confirmed to death here and here.
I won’t go through the whole listicle. Some of the entries on it are correct. For example, the first item on the listicle says “barter doesn’t mean haggle”, which it doesn’t, but it’s still unclear who is using barter to mean haggle. The numbers below refer to the numbers from the listicle.
2. Bemused doesn’t mean amused
Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”
Here we see the article contradicting itself by linking to a dictionary which defines bemused as “having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing”.
3. Depreciate doesn’t mean “deprecate”
Here the Mental Floss article acknowledges that self-deprecating = self-depreciating, but it links to a site called Grammarist and claims that self-deprecating is 40 times more common than self-depreciating. I couldn’t find out who runs Grammarist and they do not say where they get their figures from. But in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio of self-deprecating to self-depreciating is 512:2. That makes it 256 times more common.
4. Dilemma doesn’t mean quandary
Ugh, why do we have to do this? The writer claims that dilemma must be a choice between only two alternatives because di– means “two”. This is nonsense and MW even says so. The word disperse has the same di– prefix, so must it mean spreading things into only TWO directions? No. Prefixes from other dead languages do not determine today’s meaning of a word. That shit is bananas.
5. Disinterested does not mean “uninterested”
Except sometimes to totally does.
6. Electrocute does not mean “to get an electric shock”
** By the way, the meaning “give an electric shock to” was recorded the year after the original meaning was recorded (source: OED). This word couldn’t even hold on to its meaning for a year. Sad!
9. Flaunt does not mean “flout”
15. Nonplussed does not mean “not bothered”
“Many people use nonplussed to mean ‘unperturbed’ or ‘unaffected’”.
Well, that settles it then. I guess you better update your lexicon or you’re going to be left out of the conversation because the people using nonplussed to mean “not bothered” are not going to get the memo. Unless you already know that nonplussed can be used to mean “not bothered”… Wait, you do? Well, then I guess everything is sorted.
16. Oblivious doesn’t mean “unaware”
Or at least, it didn’t originally.
Aaaaand we’re back to appealing to antiquity, that old etymological fallacy. Now please explain what deer, nice, silly, and A THOUSAND OTHER WORDS mean.
17. Peruse doesn’t mean “browse”
perusing something actually means studying it in great detail.
Technically, peruse originally meant “to use up”, so you’re both wrong. If we’re going to be pedantic, why not go all the way?
As the OED notes, peruse has been used as a “broad synonym for read” since the goddamn 16th Century! (curse word mine, but it’s totally implied by the OED):
“Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perhaps influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness.” (OED, peruse)
You should definitely peruse this Mental Floss article and not take in the details.
I don’t have any more time for this. Remember when I said that it was unclear who is using barter to mean haggle? Well, that’s one way that language changes. If enough people use barter to mean haggle – and everyone understands what is meant – then barter means haggle. Just like how enough people use(d) literally to be an an intensifier like really and now literally is an intensifier, in addition to its other meanings. Lexicographers are just doing their job by updating the dictionary to include new meanings.
Stop trying to force people into using words the way you think they should be used, especially if you know what people mean when they use those words! Instead, let’s celebrate that we are witnessing language change happen.