No Word for Pollutants

Language Log has a long series of posts on the popular trope that certain societies have “no word for X.” The latest is this gem from The Lexicographer’s Rules:


Langauge Log adds a depressing footnote:

Fiji’s population growth rate is moderate, but the urban and peri-urban growth rate is high, and is clearly outstripping infra-structural planning and development. Thus it is primarily responsible for the important social issues of environmental concern, such as housing, water and sanitation. Direct regulating control of water or air pollution and monitoring are absent. …

If only they had a word for pollutants … they might be able to have some laws to monitor things like this!

For those who don’t wish to read all the Language Log posts on the topic, here is a quote from Geoffrey Pullum that hits the nail on the head:

The late philosopher Jerry Katz maintained that natural languages were inherently without expressive limits: that because of their expressive power and the possibility of paraphrasing when the lexicon provided no short way of making reference to a concept, there were no limits at all on what could be said in a natural language: the set of propositions that could conceivably be expressed in some language or other and the set of English sentence meanings were the same set. It seems very likely to me that Katz was right. But this whole do-they-have-a-word-for-it thing seems to be tacitly predicated on the unargued assumption that he was wrong.

Finally, just in case anyone might be led to blame Whorf for this whole “no word for x” trope. (As Grant Barrett does in his original post.) It really has nothing to do with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Barrett links to this page which says that “neither Sapir or Whorf made it very clear whether they were arguing for strong or weak determinism.” I disagree. I think it is fairly clear that they are arguing for a weak or “facilitating” determinism.

15 thoughts on “No Word for Pollutants

  1. But this whole do-they-have-a-word-for-it thing seems to be tacitly predicated on the unargued assumption that he was wrong.

    To provoke discussion, I will disagree that Pullum has hit the nail on the head.

    Putnam’s thesis can be paraphrased as the proposition that if they don’t have a word for it they can, nonetheless, generate a paraphrase whose sense is the same as the word in question. The issue here is the one that confronts working translators like those of us at The Word Works every day: Finding that paraphrase may be possible but, at the same time, not an easy task, especially when the topic falls outside the experience of those who speak the target language. When other constraints are in play, e.g., matching the length of a headline designed to fit a layout in a highly particular way or the rhythm of a line of poetry in a tightly constrained form (haiku, sonnet, pick your favorite), the task may be, while theoretically possible, damned near impossible without a stroke of genius.

    In a more highly formalized context, a similar issue confronts anyone who has learned to program computers in more than one programming language. At the end of the day, all programming languages are Turing machines, generating strings of ones and zeros. But from the programmer’s point of view, assembly languages are easier than machine code and C++, PASCAL, LISP, or BASIC is easier (for some tasks) than assembly language. A recursion that is easy to write in LISP can be a beast to program in APL, while a matrix operation that is easy in APL is a beast to program in LISP. Here, too, the conventional claim that you can, if you work hard enough, program anything you like in any language you choose turns out to have little bearing on the practical difficulty of shifting from one language to another in some particular case.

    Anyone here care to try to paraphrase wabi, sabi, tatami, chirashizushi or takoyaki into Inuit or Xhosa? Or even simple English?*

    *Wabi and sabi are terms of art in Japanese aesthetics, whose precise meanings have been debated for decades, if not centuries, in Japanese and numerous other languages as well.

    Tatami is the rice straw mat covered with tightly woven rush coverings used as flooring in traditional Japanese rooms.

    Chirashizushi is a form of sushi in which a variety of raw seafood and other ingredients is arranged on top of a bowl of the vinegar-flavored rice that is, in fact, the essential element in sushi, typically in a round, flat-bottomed lacquer container.

    Takoyaki is a round dumpling filled with chopped bits of octopus (the “tako”) and baked (the “yaki”) in what look to me like traditional cast iron cornmeal pans with hemispherical instead of flat-bottomed cups. The dumpling is served hot and smothered in “bulldog sauce” (think thick Worchestershire sauce).

    The ball is in your court.

  2. Trying to explain what “colonialism” means to white middle class kids in US suburbs isn’t easy either, but university professors try nonetheless. Nobody says: well, there is no word for “colonialism” in suburbia….

  3. Reverting to original topic: Isn’t it just a bit peculiar to attack an advertising slogan as if it were an academic statement? I am reminded of a remark by my old friend Don Deglopper re the anthropological study of Chinese religion, something to the effect that the anthropologist is the klutz who takes everything seriously and winds up treating the local equivalents of Jesus Christ, St. Christopher, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy as if they were equally significant.

  4. Funny this should come up — Martha Kaplan is currently doing a research project on Fiji water and how it is marketed in the US!

  5. Since it is more than likely that some Ph.D. in anthropology (perhaps even a SM reader?) was hired to write the advertising campaign, it seems like fair game…

  6. Kerim, you’re squirmming. I personally know of only a handful of anthropologists in advertising, most of whom are in market research or strategic planning.The likelihood that the line was written by a Ph.D., let alone a Ph.D. in anthropology is, I suspect, vanishingly small.

    But, reverting to topic, there is plenty of room for analysis and critique of the advertising in question. No question about it, the copy evokes the image of Fiji as an unspoiled paradise where the water is still pure, so pure that the locals don’t even have a word for pollution.

    As you yourself point out this claim is dubious. Anyone who knows that Fiji is an increasingly urbanized tourist destination with lots of folks who play cricket and golf (just think of the chemicals being used to keep the fields and greens in shape), not to mention lots of internal combustion powered transport and who knows what is being done with the sewage will wonder about this pollution-free claim.

    What bothers me is that, instead of analyzing in detail how this copy came to be written and placed where we see it, based on information about historical and ethnographic context, we took it, instead, as an opportunity to revisit an ancient chestnut, enjoy a brief academic spat, and, as far as I can see, make no visible progress beyond positions well staked out decades ago.

    Am I the only one here to see our discipline sunk in a state analogous to WWI trench warfare, where now and again a patrol sallies forth to be shot up but the basic lines move hardly at all?

  7. John:
    Extent to which these two sources serve as important reflections of the state of the discipline: A research paper (or like, thesis) about the subject would be “Jesus Christ” and a brief article on a blog (which I read as being primarily about the linguistic pattern, with the ad as an example) would be “the tooth fairy”. I think this would fall under the catagory of “notes” implied by the title of this blog.
    Regarding the issue of translation, I thought of wabi/sabi immediately but I’ve come to imagine that’s not a particularly good example because as I understand it, the words are hard to translate into even other Japanese words, which means that the concept is not very precisely defined to begin with. Your others are good, because while they are not particularly complex, they do represent the characteristic of language giving names to things with precise definitions that are hard to unpack in other languages. Still, the word “easy” was never brought into the description of his theory. If it can be expressed precisely in one language, it can probably be expressed precisely in another, even if it takes a book. The issue at hand, and what Pullum is talking about is the implication of the whole “they don’t have a word for x” thing, that bereft of a specific word for something, it would become impossible to comprehend or communicate about it. I think that the moment discourse (possibly outside of that which brevity is a necessary function: advertising, etc) requires a concept in order to function effectively, it finds a word for it. That’s why we have simply imported words from other languages, and that’s why the “blogosphere” is such a prolific producer of new and bizarre sounding words: the concepts under discussion have hit the critical mass point where the length of description warranted compression.
    What I’m saying is that natural language, as an evolving force, is very efficient. If it’s important and they don’t have a word for it, they will soon.

  8. Rex,

    We are almost in total agreement. I would amend your conclusion as follows:

    “If they don’t have a word for it and it’s important to them, they will soon.”

    Logically the same thing, but I’d like to emphasize the “and it’s important” and also stress “to them.” That would open up all sorts of interesting questions about, for example, reasons for creating a new word as opposed to borrowing one.

    I would expect, for example, that a native Inuit speaker who visited Japan would add takoyaki to his Inuit vocabulary instead of coining a new term. If I was wrong, I would then want to know why a new Inuit term was coined instead, since, on the face of it, the borrowing would be more efficient than the coinage. A variety of hypotheses suggest themselves: from “cultural” explanations in terms of a determined commitment to keeping Inuit free of loan words to more mundane possibilities; perhaps “takoyaki” is extraordinarily hard to pronounce in Inuit, tipping the efficiency balance to coinage over borrowing in this particular case.

    ***Let me say, by the way, that I know nothing about Inuit, and readers are free to substitute Klingon or Old Church Slavonic or any other language of their choice in what is, lacking relevant data, no more than speculation.

  9. John:

    We are in almost total agreement except I would amend your opening to start with my name and not Rex’s. I suppose my moniker is somewhat confusing around here.

  10. I’m gonna butt in here and agree with John M that Pullman has it wrong, on grounds that are related to his, but take the discussion in a different direction. I think in fact it is easier to talk about some things in some languages than others, when people already are talking about those things in one language and not another. A lot of words take theri meaning from the ways people have used them and are in that sense impossible to translate from one context to another: what (for example) is the inuit word for the way Judith Butler uses “Agency” in the title of _Agenc, Hegemony, Contingency_. (I’ve been reading Bradd Shore lately, so I’m tempted to say this is an instance of the difficulties anthro has in thinking about cultural reletivism and psychic unity at the same time, but I’d have to think about what all those words mean before I’d commit to that statement.

  11. There’s a lot of fluffery going on here. The “no word for pollutants” ad is a gimmick, and its truthiness is not very surprising given that ‘pollutants’ is an abstract neologism for “things that pollute”. Of course Fijians (and the resident Indians) probably have a long list of the latter – mostly to do with bodily Tabu rather than ‘environment’. But having said that, the “no word for x” trope is just a pop-culture descendant from earlier ling-psych theories, where the meaning is now only (and this is crucial) intended to refer to some culture historical fact. It is like saying English has no word for Kindergarten or Sushi, when we do: Kindergarten and Sushi. We borrowed the words from others who had invented the practices/concepts at the same time that we borrowed those practices/concepts. In this respect the Inuit word for Judith Butler’s Agency, would be Agency (or some similarly pronounced derivation). By saying the Inuit have no word for Butler’s Agency we would just be saying that they are not post-modern Gender theorists.

    The older idea that, lacking a word, a group of people cannot think a concept is an old evolutionary psychology one. A clear parallel is WHR Rivers’ work on colour terms (an example that is less easily muddled because it refers to the physiology of sight rather than the workings of the mind)- where he compiled lists of colour names from the Torres Strait and Fly River in PNG (and amongst the Eskimo) and ranked the various groups in evolutionary sequence depending on how many equivalents they had for European terms. Lacking a term was evidence of brain/eye differences – if they had no term for green then they could not see green. The fact that some Papuans used the same word for Blue and Black implied that they lacked development in some physiological area, or had more pigment in their retina preventing them from making the distinction… All of which we now recognise as being obviously wrong. There is a good brief summary of such work and its depressing predicted resurgence among Ev Psych types here

    I once got an informant to list all of the names for colours in his language. He hummed-and-hahhed over most of them, but I got a reasonable list. Except for Green – the only word he could think of for it was ‘Army’. We were sitting in the middle of a very green rainforest at the time.

  12. Sorry for the Silversteinesque lecture, everyone.

    I’m surprised nobody’s pointed this out yet (it’s a pretty conventional point), but there’s a world of difference between translation of ‘words’ and translation of propositions/predicates/sentences. I had always thought Sapir and Whorf were talking about the latter. Coming up for calques for ‘native terms’ is totally different from translating texts: the former perhaps shouldn’t even be called translation.

    So in Japan, there was a big scandal this year about a contractor/realtor/architecture group engaged in fradulent earthquake proofing. In the midst of the neoliberal/ “self-responsibility” climate here, this was a bigger deal than it already would have been. So
    the head architect, who was arguably being scapegoated because of the difficulty of getting ironclad supoenas for the people in the contracting companies, was called to testify before the National Diet to explain himself. Flatly asked why he’d consented to design unsafe buildings, he pointed out that the corrupt contractors were most of his business, that he had a wife to feed, and added, in a sentence I still cannnot translate adequately in english, “yowai jibun wa atta”. (BTW John-I don’t remember if it was wa atta or ga atta-do you? Let’s assume it was wa).

    Now, a totally legitimate translation of this into english would be, “I was weak”. But the calque is something more like “a weak(yowai) myself(jibun) existed(atta)”. To me, the Japanese has an odd implication that the person who stands before the Diet is not the subject who made the fradulent changes. Actually, you could do an endless exegesis of the statement, which I’ll refrain from.

    The point is that some relatively “deep” grammatical features of Japanese here (it doesn’t have a closed class of personal pronouns: the functional equivalent of the anaphor ‘myself’ is a noun and can be inflected as an adjective, particularly in speech of younger people) here can’t really be separated from the semantic elements of the language.

    And because a bunch of those grammatical/semantic features are apparently “harder to express in english”, you get a concrete instance in the utterance, so to speak, of what is supposed to be a deep cultural feature of Japanese politics: bureaucratic irresponsibility.

    Now, both “semantic inexpressibility” and potentially murderous bureaucratic irresponsibility are supposed to be cultural features of Japan, but if you think about it for a bit, they’re both matters of degree. They don’t make sense except in the context of comparison (here to the ‘west’, in both cases) The really important point is that both concepts are matters of degree in the -same way- and concepts of the same order: cut from the same cloth, so to speak.

    The trouble is showing that either of them have a privledged relationship to Japan. That was what the National Diet session was supposed to do, actually, but that’s a different story…

  13. ASG: Yes, this is the kind of fascilitating argument I feel comfortable with.

    In a somewhat related vein, Langauge Log had a good post about the concept that “the japanese are japanese because they speak Japanese” which is very popular in Japan. This was picked up here by Ray Girvan.

  14. If the phrase was (I don’t know, but let’s suppose it was) “yowai jibun wa atta,” I’m not so sure that “I was weak” is an adequate translation. As I understand it, “wa” points to one member of a set with more than one member, suggesting an implication that might be better translated, “My weaker self (not the usual stronger self) was in control.” Not a unitary self in a weak moment, but another, not my usual self, which shouldn’t be blamed for this. A more natural English equivalent might be “I wasn’t myself.” (My superior translator wife remarks, “I’d have to know the context better to be sure.”)

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