Thoughts on “untranslatable” words

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

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”.

Translating morphology

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”.

kalsaritkannit

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 couch potato 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.

nelson_muntz_schadenfreude
English has a word for schadenfreude. It’s schadenfreude.

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).

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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.

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Steven Pinker’s Dog Whistles

So. Steven Pinker.

Yeah I wrote about him way back in the day when I reviewed his book The Language Instinct and how it was garbage. But if linguistic nativism is your thing, then fine. You do you. Geoffrey Sampson presents a valid argument against Pinker’s claims and Pinker responded… never. Because The Language Instinct is still making that money yo.

But Steven Pinker has branched out now. And things have not gone so well. Scholars from other fields are learning that he’s kinda bad at scholarship.

So here’s a rundown of why you should not follow what Steven Pinker says or writes.

First up we got Pinker’s garbage tweet about words not having power. He links to an article in Quillette (which we’ll get to later). I’m not going to embed the tweet here, but I’ll quote it. Pinker says “The first insight of linguistics, going back to Plato, is that words are conventions, without magical powers. That’s being nullified by PC/SJW attacks on mentioning taboo words, even ironically or in works of art.” Many people pointed out how stupid this is and, indeed, it is very stupid. The first insight of linguistics? Even historians know more about linguistics than this. But what it’s really about is how Steven Pinker really wants to be able to say the n-word. Like really bad. And preferably with impunity, if that’s not too much to ask. Why does everyone have to be so uptight about Steven Pinker saying the n-word? iT’s jUsT a wOrD

Let’s not dwell on it because things get worse (somehow).

Pinker has published a book called Enlightenment Now. In the book, Pinker argues that the world is actually a better place than you think it is because of the Enlightenment. It’s too bad Pinker totally fucks up the scholarship in his book. As this article by Aaron R. Hanlon shows, Pinker doesn’t even know what the Enlightenment was all about.

History scholars staring to feel like linguists.

Do you think we’re done? We’re not done. (I wish we were done. Those three paragraphs alone were draining. On we go! Into the shit!)

Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is bad for other reasons. Here’s Samuel Moyn pointing out one of the problems:

Or take inequality. Sure, some perceive a rampant crisis in most nations, but it is all sort of boring and overblown, by Pinker’s lights. “I need a chapter on the topic,” he writes, apparently willing himself to push through his fatigue with the subject, “because so many people have been swept up in the dystopian rhetoric and see inequality as a sign that modernity has failed to improve the human condition.” In his cursory treatment, Pinker tries to downplay currently exploding levels of national inequality, by pointing out that global inequality is declining: Even if the gap between the richest and the rest in individual countries is widening, on a world scale inequality is falling slightly. Never mind that it is within their individual countries that most people are experiencing and responding to inequality, and wreaking havoc because of it. In any case, Pinker argues, it does not matter morally if some people get extremely wealthy, so long as poverty decreases.

Just as in his somewhat literal understanding of violence, Pinker simply cannot see something so straightforward as class rule, which has been massively reestablished in our time of inequality, with all the baleful effects it has had on politics. In a world in which the outsized gains of the rich allow them to live a separate existence from the rest—stooping only to buy elections with dark money and even induce populists to act in their interest—rage is not only an expected but also an understandable result. The fact that these forms of domination and hierarchy are features of the very modernity he wants to lionize is not a possibility Pinker pauses to contemplate. Each of his arguments on the subject is a way of saying he doesn’t think inequality is that important—even as populists across the world are reaping gains from the obvious conclusion that it is.

“But, Joe,” I hear you saying, “those are just scholars who know more about the Enlightenment than Steven Pinker. So what if he got some stuff wrong? It’s not like he’s a leading thinker in society!” He is a leading thinker in society. He learned how to get things wrong and not care about it in linguistics. Now he’s moved on to other fields and he also sucks at them. And he’s also an asshole about it. Here’s Jennifer Szalai:

Steven Pinker doesn’t just want you to be happy; he wants you to be grateful too. His new book, “Enlightenment Now,” is a spirited and exasperated rebuke to anyone who refuses to concede that the world is becoming a better place. “None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become,” he writes. “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.”

The world has become amazing for Steven Pinker, so why don’t you all just shut your pie holes, huh? You want another article showing that Pinker fucks up his argument? You got it! In fact, here’s two! Go nuts! Because this nonsense of Steven Pinker writing things and people paying for his hot garbage is getting tiring. Linguists knew it first. Sorry, historians. He’s yours now. (Please take him) [Update July 30: Here’s a third article pointing out how wrong and misleading Pinker is in Enlightenment Now. It’s by Phil Torres in Salon.]

And here’s Jason Hickel asking Pinker to debate him. Hahahaha, good luck, bro. Call some linguists if you get Pinker to respond. Because he ain’t ever done that. But he still gets puff pieces in the Chronicle. I see you, Chronicle. Do better. Be more like Mehdi Hasan and don’t fall for Pinker’s bullshit.

[Update June 5] Don in the comments pointed me to a piece in Current Affairs by Nathan J. Robinson which is a thorough take down of Pinker, his writings and his ideology. Well, almost every way – there’s not much in there about how Pinker also sucks at linguistics. If you want something less acerbic than what I’ve written here, then check that article out. But if you want the really despicable stuff Pinker has written, read on and check that piece out later.

But friends, things get much worse. Steven Pinker promotes the website Quillette, which is website all about “free speech”. I’m putting that in scare quotes because it’s 2019 and you know what that means. Quillette likes to publish racists and sexists. They’ll even let these people publish anonymously because why should they have to own up to their bigotry? Steven Pinker has aligned himself with them. Even more so, Pinker said that campus rape is a “moral panic,” an “extraordinary popular delusion” and something akin to a witch hunt. And all because the rate of rapes on college campuses is not as high as it is in “the world’s most savage war zones”. Fuck you, Steven Pinker. Maybe you’ll listen to me because I’m also a straight white man. Steven Pinker has never had to cross the street on campus because he was walking alone and there were men walking toward him and he was worried about being attacked. Steven Pinker has never had to worry about what he’ll do while he’s out for a jog on campus and there’s a man running behind him – is he fast enough to outrun that man? Is he strong enough to overpower him? Are there enough other people around to hear him scream? Steven Pinker has never had to worry about having something slipped into his drink at a campus party. The only reason I know that women have to worry about these things is because they have told me. There are other things they have to worry about – things that neither me nor Steven Pinker have ever been forced to think about. And there are women who have been raped on campus. But Steven Pinker doesn’t care because there aren’t enough rape victims on college campuses as there are in some hypothetical war zone. Ugh. Get fucked, Pinker.

I can’t go on. I don’t want to. Go read this thread. And when someone cites Steven Pinker, tell them to get a real source for their claims. If he would act right, academia would take him seriously. If he would do actual scholarship, he wouldn’t be a problem. But every field he goes into rejects his claims. Why? Because he’s shit.

Update on that F-K paper

Three months ago I posted about a paper in PLoS ONE called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches”. I noted that there are serious problems with that study. For the tl;dr:

After I posted on here, I also commented on the article with my concerns. The PLoS ONE journal allows commenting on their articles, but I’ll admit that my first comment was neither appropriate nor helpful. It was more of a troll than anything. The editors removed my comment, and to their credit, they emailed me with an explanation why. They also told me what a comment should look like. So I posted a grown-up comment on the article. This started an exchange between me and the authors of the article. Here’s the skinny:

1. The authors confuse written language with spoken language
2. The study uses an ineffectual test for written language on spoken language
3. The paper does not take into account how transcriptions and punctuation affect the data
4. The authors cite almost no linguistic sources in a study about language
5. They use a test developed for English on other languages

The authors tried to respond to my points about why their methodology is wrong, but there are some things that they just couldn’t argue their way out of (such as points 1, 2, 3 and 5 above).

Behind the scenes, I was talking with the editors of the journal. They told me that they were taking my criticisms seriously and looking into the issue themselves. In my comments on the paper, I provided multiple sources to back up my claims. The authors did not do in their replies to me, but that’s because they can’t – there aren’t studies to back up their claims. However, my last email with the editors of the journal was over a month ago. I understand that these things can take time (and the editors told me this much) but a few of the criticisms that I raised are pretty cut and dry. The authors also stopped replying to my comments, the last one of which was posted on April 9, 2019 (can’t say I blame them though).

So I’m not very positive that anything is going to change. But I’ll let you know if it does.

Short interview with Dr. Samy Alim

In the Pittsburgh City 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.

I can’t pick a favorite quote from the City Paper interview. Just go check it out: https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/the-linguistic-dominance-of-white-western-english-and-how-to-recognize-and-disrupt-it/Content?oid=14230061

The American Spectator tries to write about language

So, apparently the American Spectator is a conservative news magazine. Their About page doesn’t load on Opera (probably IE only), so I’m going off what Wikipedia tells me. While researching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I came across a review in the American Spectator of John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax. Somehow the reviewer, John Derbyshire, claims that McWhorter is too progressive. I mean, I guess everyone is progressive compared to the American right…

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about how to spot a bad article on language and/or linguistics. Here is the first paragraph of the Spectator’s review:

Chinese has an extraordinary number of verbs meaning “carry.” If I carry something on a hanging arm, like a briefcase, the verb is ti; on an outstretched palm, tuo; using both palms, peng; gripped between upper arm and body, xie; in my hand, like a stick, wo; embraced, like a baby, bao; on my back, bei; on my head, ding; on my shoulder, kang; on a pole over my shoulder, tiao; slung on a shoulder pole between two guys, tai….

Whoa! That’s a lotta verbs! I counted 11 and the reviewer wasn’t even done listing them. But hold on a second. How many verbs for carry does English have? According to Thesaurus.com, at least 39.

carry - thesaurus

What gives? Well, this is a bad way to start out an article on language. It’s called the “X words for snow” meme or cliché (aka a snowclone), after the claim that Eskimos have some large number of words for snow, which is supposed to mean that they have some better (or at least different) conception of snow than English speakers.

If you think about it for a second though, you can see why this idea is nonsense. First, languages divide and combine words differently. So whereas English doesn’t have a single word for ice hockey, Finnish does (it’s jääkiekko, literally a compound noun of jää “ice” and kiekko “puck/hockey”). But English speakers in Canada seem to have as firm a grasp on what ice hockey is all about as Finnish speakers in Finland. The inverse of the trope above is called the “No words for X” meme.

Second, what really counts as a word meaning “carry”? I could skate the puck into the zone in hockey or run the ball into the end zone in American football. In both cases I would be “carrying” the puck or the ball, but would you consider “carry” as part of the meaning of skate or run? I doubt it. Context can fill in a lot in language. And some languages might have a grammatical marker that means “carry” – so not a word word, like the word “word,” but a morpheme that you can attach to other words, as English does with –ed to indicate the past tense. Or think about how French forms a negative using the “word” pas, which comes from the word meaning step, but is now required to grammatically form the negative (so much so that you can leave off the negative particle ne in French, but not the pas).

Third, if it’s true that speakers of a language have some better conception of something because their language has a bunch of words for it, then surely that only works for the speakers who know those words. It doesn’t matter how many words Chinese has for “carry” – if a Chinese speaker doesn’t know those words, then they are useless. You can can sometimes fill in the blanks based on context, but this idea places too much importance on the words of a language and removes other factors relevant to language, such as speakers’ pragmatic and semantic knowledge or skills. (I have to also say that it’s interesting that the reviewer in the Spectator doesn’t say which dialect of Chinese he’s talking about. I know from reading about Chinese that there isn’t really one Chinese language and that some of the dialects are farther apart than Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. I guess he’s talking about Standard Mandarin Chinese? If you know more, leave a comment.)

There are other reasons that the Spectator’s opening paragraph is nonsense, but that should get you started. If you want to know more, McWhorter’s book delves into this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The reviewer in the Spectator tries to engage with McWhorter’s claims, but falls flat by saying things like the differences in language are “biological in origin,” that the differences in the ways language marks things cannot be chance, and that McWhorter is a “fanatically extreme egalitarian protesting too much,” something I don’t think anyone except the American right would or could accuse him of.

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen held her farewell lecture at the University of Helsinki on April 5. The place was packed and I want to share some observations from the day.

Terttu was introduced with the words “You can’t work in language variation and change without being familiar with Terttu’s research.” That isn’t hyperbole, it’s an understatement. Continue reading “Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture”

A Language Map of the United States

There a new and interactive map of the languages spoken in the United States. It’s at http://languagemap.us/ and it’s pretty fun to play with. The data comes from the US Census Bureau so you can zoom in on counties. Neat!

Over on r/linguistics, the creator answered a few questions. And there’s an FAQ on the main page.