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"OMG! They have a word for that!"

Speaking of language (and I sometimes am), here's a bit that I appreciated from the A.Word.A.Day mailing list:

In a forwarded email I came across an article with the title: 14 wonderful words with no English equivalent. The article lists words from various languages and their meanings, for example:

Rhwe (Tsonga, South Africa): to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked.

I have a problem with articles like this, listing unusual words in other languages. They are almost always wrong. It's not efficient for a language to have a specific word for such a highly specialized concept as "to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked". You mean there's a separate word in that language for "to sleep on the floor with a mat, while drunk and naked"? I don't speak the Tsonga language mentioned in the article, but I'm certain that the meaning given is not the right one.

Yes! That's been a (very minor) pet peeve of mine too. People love the idea that a given foreign language will deliver delightful examples of "OMG I can't believe they have a word for this" vocabulary. I certainly understand the appeal, and I love me those who'd-a-thunk-it words when they do come up – but I don't love them so much that I want to imagine foreign words as more twee than they actually are.

It's like they have a different word for everything!

The usual form of the exaggeration is to make the foreign word depict something unusually specific. With the above as a perfect example, the text goes on to suggest a reason:

I believe this is what happens: a writer of such articles comes across a word and takes the whole context as the meaning of the word. Imagine this writer coming across the sentence: "Jane was not expecting a promotion but when she learned that she had been appointed to the VP position, she was chuffed." Now our writer goes on to write a breathless article:

Did you know English has a word chuffed which is used to describe someone who is delighted to receive something unexpected.

Yep. It's called semantic narrowing, the shift of a word's meaning to narrower one. It seems to happen a lot to borrowings from foreign languages. As an example, dip into salsa. It's America's favorite condiment (say some), but many of those chip-dipping Yanks would define salsa as a specific spicy tomato-based sauce, not knowing that it's the Spanish word for the much broader "sauce", with or without tomatoes and with or without the spices.

My Five Japanese words that don't mean what you think they mean are all in that same vein. Contrary to the beliefs of many folks around the world, where native Japanese speakers are concerned, anime refers to any animated media, not a specific style or origin; manga similarly refers to any cartoon illustrations, from anywhere; banzai is a widely-used cheer, not just a military one; kaizen is any and all improvement, with no built-in meanings of "continuous" or "Japanese philosophy of"; and katana is any single-edged curved sword from anywhere in the world, not a Japanese weapon. I've got a few more candidates lined up for a follow-up article, following the same pattern: words that foreign borrowers invariably make far more specific than the originals. People like specific words!

Death by overwork from shoveling that-one-specific-wetness-of-snow-mush

The discussion may remind you of an oft-repeated factoid that's now widely regarded as a linguistic myth: "OMG eskimos have a hundred (or some crazy number) words for snow!" That's again a claim that some group of foreigners uses wonderfully specific words, while those of us back home plod along with bland and broad terms.

According to the Wikipedia article on snow words, the debunkers of the myth (apparently there's still debate on the matter) claim that a given "eskimo" language has a very manageable number of relevant root words, not terribly different from the "snow", "ice", "blizzard", "drift", "sleet", and so on of English. What differs, though, is the ability of the language to readily form precise compound words out of these roots, even "words" that might replace a phrase or sentence of English. The tons-of-words myth, say the linguists, arises when the phrase-like expressions created in this building-block fashion are imagined to be unique words on their own.

I pointed to a similar happening in Debunked: "OMG Japanese has a single word for 'death by overwork' "! Yes, karoshi can be called a single word, but its existence by no means demonstrates some special Japanese affinity for working to death. Rather, it's a mundane outcome of the fact that Japanese can (and does) express nearly any cause of death with the (Chinese-based) construction {word for cause} + shi (death). The single-word status of karoshi offers no special cultural insights; it's just the way things this sort of thing gets expressed using the building blocks of Japanese.

"It boggles my Western mind"

There's yet another variation in the way people imagine words from other languages: the claim that not only does "our side" lack some specific word that "those guys" possess, we don't even have the concept. I'll mention these alleged cultural bogglers a lot, though mainly to debunk them. I hear again and again that shouganai is some fatalistic Japanese concept at odds with "Western" thought; in fact, it's nothing of the sort. Likewise, contrary to the lore of pundits speaking on management and statecraft, the Chinese/Japanese 危機, essentially "crisis", does not reveal a wise Oriental equivalence of "danger" with "opportunity". (And, in a word I've yet to address, the Japanese mottainai is not the magical Japan-only concept that I'm told it is. The English terms "wasteful", "a waste", or "a shame" peg the same concept quite nicely.)

Let's be clear: if you look to languages abroad, you likely will find delightfully specific words not available in your own tongue, and maybe even entire concepts that strike you as novel or perplexing. I certainly don't rule that out! I merely like to save the OMG for cases truly warranting it. Apply a little friendly skepticism when you hear claims of foreign words with wacky meanings. Sprinkle some extra grains of salt onto grandiose claims of utterly foreign concepts. That'll weed out lots of exaggerated claims – yet given human ingenuity, you'll likely discover something that legitimately passes the uniqueness test.

(And if you really need a word for your drunk, nude, bare-floor slumber, make one up. With a YouTube video of your dishevelment as explanatory accompaniment, there's no better time to get your linguistic creation into global circulation!)



Russian note

"yet the Russian word is a generic one simply meaning "soup", not a specific type." - That's wrong! The Russian word for soup is "soop". Borshtsh is not always deep red, but it's not like any soup is called "borshtsh". There are specifical names for some of the traditional soups (like "shtshi"), but whenever you cook a no-named liquid main dish from whatever you've had in the storage, it's just "soop". BTW, it's also more characteristic dish for Ukraine, but world associates it with Russia only... It's also known in Poland and Lithuania. It's given similar name in their language. The name of "borshtsh" comes from the Slavic name of hogweed, which was originally (ages ago) the main ingredient.

Thanks for the answer!

Well, Russian is my mother tongue, after all :) "Zupa" sounds a bit funny :D I think your salsa reference is correct! And the recipe you've used is quite classic. I don't add any vinegar to my food so I can't be sure how good it tasted, but indeed it's a very fulfilling dish. It also might change its taste after staying in a pot for a while (the level of change depends on how much you boiled it while cooking, because if you don't overcook it, it first gives a significant beef flavour but after a while this flavour fades away).


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