One of my pet peeves is people making spurious claims that there are some languages in which there are ideas that just can’t be expressed. This is often preceded by uninformed crap like “there are primitive languages that only have 100 words, right?” (There are no such languages.) Do I know words in language X that we don’t have in English? Sure. For example, there is no equivalent single word in English for the Yiddish word נחת (nakhes). Does that mean that you can’t express the idea in English? Certainly not. Nakhes is a mixture of pride and pleasure–in the prototypical case, you get it when your children do something good.
Now, you may be thinking of a Wittgensteinian counter-argument to this. My French tutor has the following quote from Wittgenstein in her email signature: The limits of my language are the limits of my world. What did Wittgenstein mean by this? He didn’t mean (and, yes, I will have this post reviewed by a philosopher, as I am not one) that it’s the limits of his language that form the limits of his world, and that if he spoke some other language, perhaps the limits of his world would be different. Rather, his point was that the limits of language in general are the limits of philosophy–he maintained that what we can’t talk about, we can’t think about, and so–as they might put it on the French high school exit exam–philosophy is doomed to always be betrayed by language. Wittgenstein is not claiming that his language limits his “world”–he’s claiming that all language in general limits the ability to think, and hence to philosophize.
The Zipf’s Law connection: I needed a word today, and I couldn’t find it in my native language, but I did find exactly what I needed in French. I was writing an email in which I tried to explain the good points and the bad points of a web-based tool that I use in my work, some of which involves formalizing the semantics of the language of bioscience. As an example, I pointed out what hints it gives me about the kinds of prepositions that can go with the word differentiate, and in particular, how they encode the fact that a cell can differentiate in a particular location–cortex and gonad in the examples above–but that if it differentiates into something, that has nothing to do with location at all, but rather with the outcome of the differentiation–in the examples, we’re talking about cells differentiating into different kinds of cells. (It’s the ability of stem cells to do this that makes them stem cells. Cellules de souche, I think they’re called.) This is a specific weirdness of the word differentiate–it has a very word-specific relationship with the preposition into. What to call that “specific weirdness”? Here’s the best that I could come up with:
I was using the French word spécificité here. La spécificité refers to a special feature of something. You could translate it with the word specifics, but that wouldn’t go right in this sentence. I could imagine using the word idiosyncracies here, but that has an implication of abnormality that wasn’t quite right for the context, either–as a linguist, I don’t think in terms of normativity where language is concerned. Spécificité has no such connotation in French, as far as I know–for example, when people describe me in French in terms of my profession, they often say that one of my spécificités is that I work on biomedical language.
So: on my journey to learn to speak French, I’ve finally come upon one little thing that I know how to say in French, but not in English (my native language). If you don’t mind, I’m going to think about this not as a reflection of my inarticulateness in English, but as a mark of improvement in my French. Undoubtedly this bit of hubris will be retaliated for by the embarrassment of me not understanding a simple question about the location of the bathroom at some point in the course of the day, but I’ll live with that.
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