The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.
What is “near-perfect English”? English that this writer can understand? This is a shot across the bow at Europeans – some of them may sometimes speak as good as moi, but usually their language would best be described as “serviceable”. It’s also a slight to linguists, or the group of people who study language for a living and would never describe instances of it as “near-perfect”. I think we’re in for a ride full of hot takes. Continue reading “Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions”→
Over on the Stroppy Editor blog, Tom Freeman has written a response to Lionel Shriver’s article in Harper’s complaining about semantic drift. You should go check Freeman’s article out here.
I want to point out two especially great part’s in Freeman’s post. First, Freeman starts his post by boiling down what these language complaints are really about:
The remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.
Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.
I tell my students something similar. The people who complain about language change are often the same people who are no longer in their 30s with their lives ahead of them. They’re in their 50s or 60s now and they’re recognizing that they are being replaced whether they like it or not. Life in your 20s and 30s seems great – you don’t have as many responsibilities, you still have your youth – of course the world and everything in it should stay the same, including the language rules that you learned. But it doesn’t. You get older. The world changes. And language changes. How dare they?
Freeman also gives the idea that dictionaries should be thought of as guidebooks, not gospels:
For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.
The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.
I’ve been harsh on Dictionary.com’s blog in the past, but they’re stepping up their game over there. For example, they have a post about how the word mistress is sexist. There’s no real equivalent for the man in an affair and the use of the word makes the woman in the affair seem immoral and the one to blame. The post cites others talking about the word and how journalists should probably stop using it (or be very careful when they do), and it quotes the AP Stylebook as saying that, instead of mistress, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred.”
But the post is also great because it discusses other words “used to describe women, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships, that don’t have a male equivalent,” such as spinster, tramp, housewife, and bitch. You should go give it a read. Follow the links in the article for more discussion. And think about how language can reflect culture – it’s not a surprise that the words used to describe women have more negative connotations than the ones used to describe men. People are and have been sexist. Time to change that nonsense.
Hey, guess what? Rich people are just like you and me. They just use different words for their crimes. On a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, journalist Oliver Bullough talked about all the ways that rich people around the world illegally hide their money. Around minute 36, Bullough talks about the euphemisms that rich people use when they fleece you:
GROSS: So if you’re a jurisdiction that has laws favorable to hiding money, you can’t exactly, like, advertise that. How does word get out?
BULLOUGH: You kind of can advertise it ’cause this is all done in – it’s all – everyone talks in euphemisms anyway. I mean, no one talks about hiding dirty money. You talk about, you know, asset protection or about – you know, no one talks about secrecy jurisdictions. You talk about confidentiality. You know, confidentiality and secrecy are the same thing, but they’re just – you’re putting a different spin on it. You know, you don’t talk about being a tax haven. You talk about avoiding fiscal friction.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, I like that.
BULLOUGH: It is a – you know, you – no one ever talks about a bribe. You talk about a consultancy payment or possibly a facilitation payment.
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:
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.
In the PittsburghCity Paper, there’s a short interview with Dr. Samy Alim. You should read it. It’s called “” and it’s all about language and discrimination. It’ll give you a taste of what kind of research Dr. Alim has done. If you like what you read, then go check out his book (with Geneva Smitherman, another great linguist) called Articulate while Black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the U.S., about how Obama’s masterful use of language is representative of the relationship between race, language and education in the US. That book is excellent.
This tweet by Prof. Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School came across my feed last night.
I'm grading grad student papers and one of them keeps using "it's" when "its" is appropriate and I'm not saying I'm a harsh grader but I'm torn between giving the paper a failing grade or stabbing the author with an ice pick.
Teachers, don’t make fun of your students. It’s not funny. It’s shitty.
Besides that, the distinction between its and it’s is so insignificant that only people who don’t know much about language would cling to it like it’s some ancient secret. Arguing about its/it’s (or picking on your students over it) is like arguing over who the best Robin was, Dick Grayson or Tim Drake*.
As it turns out, Ammon Shea (the author of Reading the OED, which you should totally read) did some digging and found out that Prof. Danny mistakenly used it’s for its in his dissertation. Because of course he did.