You Can't Really Say that in "X"

Updated on October 31, 2019

If the Languages are Different, the Ideas are Different

Anybody who knows more than one language and has been asked to translate from one language to another, or has even just asked someone, “How do you say this in X language?” has either answered the request or encountered the response, “You can’t really say that in X.”

There are things that are commonplace in one language that are unutterable in another. (Though approximations are possible, there’s always the caveat – “It’s not really the same.”)

I was struck by this recently when I undertook the translation of an old “chestnut” of American popular literature – “The Night before Christmas” into Scottish Gaelic. (A plug, for anyone who cares: An Oidhche ro Nollaig, available on Amazon.) And in the course of this labor of love, I was struck by how in a practical sense, languages differ in their abilities to communicate, and what they determine should be communicated, and how.

language is a toolbag
language is a toolbag

In part, this observation reflects what’s called the Whorfian hypothesis of language, or linguistic relativity -- a theory that language is not only a tool for communication, but is also to some extent a determiner of what and how we think. In other words, it’s difficult – not impossible, but difficult – to express an idea in a language if your language doesn’t have a word – or some sort of pre-packaged verbal expression -- for that idea.

In this way, according to the Whorfian advocates, language is like a tool bag of memes. When we seek to express an idea, if our language tool bag, so to speak, only has paint brushes, when we reach in to grab a word (or “word”) to express an inchoate thought, we come in with some variation of a paint brush. We don’t find a hammer.

There are those who absolutely deny the idea that language influences thought – arguing that because of “universal grammar,” all languages are essentially the same (sometimes going so far as to assert this down to a grammatical or syntactical level); and those such as Harvard linguist John McWhorter who once said that the differences between languages are minimal -- just “fluttering around the edges.”


beauty in imperfection
beauty in imperfection

That's Ugly! No, it's Beautiful ...

But consider, the Japanese word wabi-sabi conveys the idea of beauty in imperfection. In fact, there’s a whole art form around the creation of something that is “flawless” and then creating a flaw in it.

The Whorfian hypothesis holds that partly because there isn’t the word in English, there isn’t the idea in our English-language culture, in which even a scratched box (not even the item itself) in a store is passed over or demands a discount.

This is not to say that an idea for which a language does not possess a ready-made meme cannot be expressed in that language. True, it’s possible to communicate the idea of wabi-sabi in English, as I did above, but you can see both how long it took – and if you consider the picture as part of the expression of my concept’s meaning, you can add another 1,000 words to the definition; and how clumsy it would be to insert this 1,100-word “word” into a conversation.

My explanation does not roll off the tongue, nor is it ready made for utterance, an important factor for communication because when we are speaking – or writing – most often we “grab” for the linguistic tool we have in our language tool box. We don’t, for the most part, invent new tools.

If you doubt this, think of the last time you invented a new word?

(And how did that go?)

If people in a language-culture notice a deficiency in their communication, by which I mean the lack of a ready-made meme or word for a new concept, or discover a new need, they fill that lack by either inventing new words or new meanings for old words: “tweet” used to be something that birds did but did not exist in its present sense before the advent of the company Twitter.

A language may borrow words from another language: there is no way to say deja-vu in English, except by using the borrowed French expression. There’s no way to say algebra except by using the word borrowed from Arabic.

In some ways, language determines what we must pay attention to.

Japanese, for instance, famously has more than 10 forms of the word “you.” A speaker of Japanese must calibrate the exact status, relationship, relative age, of the person being addressed. This feature – required of Japanese speakers – requires the speaker to pay attention to shades of difference in hierarchy, age, relationship between the speaker and the person being spoken to.

Add to this, and maybe because of this, there is a tendency in Japanese language-culture to avoid saying “you” at all!

In English, by contrast, we just use the single word “you,” and that is an end to it. We don’t even make a distinction between the formal and the informal, as other European-origin languages do, which would require us to address, say, our boss and our baby, differently.

Neither does English explicate between the singular or the plural you (although some varieties of English do sneak in a y’all, or youse, or you guys), or even between the specific “you” and the generalized “you” (“How do you keep them on the farm, once they’ve seen Par-ee,” as the old song goes.)

None of this is to say that English is deficient because it does not have these words, or that other languages are somehow lesser because they might lack easy ways to express ideas that are common in English. Languages evolve and adapt to the conditions in which the people of that language-culture find themselves. Part of what a language “forces” speakers to attend to reflects the cultural or physical environment.

One could venture that the Japanese language forces speakers to express exact status relationships because these delineations are important in Japanese culture. In American culture, theoretically at least, everyone’s equal. Even the President is “George W.” or “Barack” or “Donald.”

Fifty Words for "Snow"
Fifty Words for "Snow"

Language Expresses the Culture and the Environment in Which it Arose

Various Inuit languages are said to contain a super-abundance of words for “snow” because being aware of the exact condition of the environment in the frozen North is essential to survival.

This is a contested claim, but one that is generally supported by studies such as by Carnegie Melon and U.C. Berkeley researchers, who make two points: First, English, because it evolved in a cold climate to begin with, offers a poor comparison (so, don’t start counting the number of words in English for snowy conditions), and second, tropical languages tend not to make much distinction in gradations of “snow” or “ice,” whereas cold-climate languages do. I can add to this that a quick check of an online English-Inuit dictionary turns up 47 Inuit words for “snow” or snowy conditions. (Though, here we might get into disputes as to what constitutes a “word.”)

On the other hand, having spent much of my life in warm climates of Southern California and the American South, I have only one or two words for snow (“snow,” of course, and I suppose, “ice” – though the latter is mostly something I put in my drink as I sit on the beach).

If I were a skier, however (even in Southern California), I’d have a lot more words for snow than I do now because noticing – and noting in my speech and writing -- the differences in the quality and quantity of snow conditions would be important to my success in and enjoyment of the sport.

Furthermore, not only does language force us to attend to certain aspects of our culture, our environment, but by focusing speakers on aspects of thought, language can shape behavior.

Quo Vadis?

Some languages, as an another example, require speakers to make note of absolute directions such as north, south, east, west. This is unlike English in which directions are expressed in terms relative to the speaker. In other words, the speaker in a language such as the Australian Aborigine language Guugu Yimithirr would not say something like “the kangaroo came at me from my right” but rather, “the kangaroo came at me from the north.”

And whereas in the retelling, an English speaker would always indicate the “right” in the retelling, no matter which direction they were looking when they were speaking, the Guugu Yimithirr speaker would indicate the compass direction north, in one telling pointing to the left, in another to the right, in another to the front, and another to the rear – depending on where north was in relation to the speaker at the moment.

One of the effects of the language influencing – if not thought, at least what the speakers of this language have to pay attention to in order to be a competent speaker – is directions. Experiments have demonstrated that speakers of Guugu Yimithirr indeed are able to keep track of absolute (which is to say, compass) directions much more readily than speakers of English, because in order to be competent in their language, they simply have to.

What Language Did the Ant Speak?
What Language Did the Ant Speak?

The Word Creates the Act

In some ways, language not only affects what we think, how we think, but also modifies our behavior.

Economist Keith Chen of Yale University studied whether language can effect rates of savings between language cultures. His conclusion was that people in language-cultures such as Mandarin which do not have a future verb tense tend to save for the future (that is, save for retirement, etc) at a significantly greater rate than cultures that do have a future verb tense. That is, the future tense in some subtle way prompts speakers to distance the future and thus see the future that is not now, not urgent, not immediate.

On the other hand, speakers of non-future-tense languages are in some way impressed with the immediacy of the future. That shift from “I will retire” to “I retire” (or “I am retiring”) influences a small but telling difference in the rate of saving for the future, including retirement when accumulated over years and over an entire population.

Beyond that – beyond the existence of vocabulary or idea-clusters in one language versus another, translation is not simply a matter of plugging the words of one language into something like Google translate and seeing what comes out the other end. Language is more than simply a binary code - -- language x says ‘a’ and language y says ‘b’ … but contains ways of phrasing, different ideas, order of thoughts, and sometimes the presence or lack of concepts that are or may not be present in another language.

language influences savings

Hit One What Out of the Ballpark?

Beyond that – beyond the existence of vocabulary or idea-clusters in one language versus another, translation is not simply a matter of plugging the words of one language into something like Google translate and seeing what comes out the other end. Language is more than simply a binary code - -- language x says ‘a’ and language y says ‘b’ … but contains ways of phrasing, different ideas, order of thoughts, and sometimes the presence or lack of concepts that are or may not be present in another language.

A commonly heard expression in response to a request to translate from one language to another – “How do you say this in X?” – is, “You can’t really say that in X.” Either because the words themselves don’t exist in one or another of the languages in question, or the ideas don’t. To an extent that we often aren’t aware of, language depends on metaphor, for language itself is metaphoric, that is, symbolic, but then add into the mix a metaphor on metaphor, and it becomes even more abstracted.

Unless someone comes from a baseball playing culture, to “hit one out of the ballpark” doesn’t make any sense, even if you understand the words, just like “sticky wicket” is incomprehensible to non-cricket playing cultures, even if English is a native language (such as that in the United States).

Blind & Crazy
Blind & Crazy

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

There’s a joke about the putting the common English phrase into a computer program – ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ translating it into another language that doesn’t have that concept and then translating it back into English – “blind, crazy.”

Even when the words are gotten right – meaning can be lost. During the so-called Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, many in the West took alarm over the then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe table-pounding and his declaration that “We will bury you

That's What I Said, but That's Not What I Meant

This statement was translated accurately into English. However, the translation was totally misleading.

How could that be? How could the words be correctly translated but the meaning be wrong?

When translated into English, this declaration was understood by American English speakers as a threat, something along the lines of, We will kill you and bury you. However, in Russian idiom, that is, in Russian language-culture, the phrase meant something more along the lines of We will outlive you. We will live to see the demise of your culture. Our way will outlive yours.

Khrushchev’s declaration wasn’t a threat. It was a prophecy.

It’s true that the human mind, one ever culture one is from, shares deeply entrenched similarities with every other human mind, and among these traits is not only the capacity to express itself in language. And in this sense, languages are similar – they are vocal, verbal expressions of thought and intention, controlled by the speaker, influenced by the language-culture of the speaker.

But to insist that all distinctions are minor, just “flutterings” of minor distinctions, is akin to saying that since we as human beings share more similarities than differences, there is no more than a butterfly wing’s fluttering of a difference between Donald Trump and Mother Teresa, between Jesus and Hitler.


Turn Off that Noise!
Turn Off that Noise!

Another Analogy

Music is an art form, but is often referred to as a “language” in and of itself, whose medium is sound organized in time (much like speech), and which includes pitch, rhythm, tempo, meter, dynamics of loudness and softness, timbre and texture. All languages share these qualities, yet it would be a mistake to assert that the difference between a Bach sonata and a death-metal rock-and-roll song is merely “fluttering.” (Try telling that to my father who used to shout at me when I was playing rock-n-roll, “Turn off that noise!” Or to me, when I politely request the same thing of my kids when they play their music too loudly, which I usually phrase as something like, “Please play something I would recognize as music.”)

Or, that considering that we human beings share between 95% and 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees (depending on how you do the counting), we would still hardly argue that the difference between you and a chimp is merely “fluttering around the edges.”

Perhaps, but it’s the “fluttering” that makes all the difference.

Selected References


Chen, K. T. “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets.” American Economic Review 2013, 103(2): 690-731. Editor’s choice, Science Magazine, Vol 339(4). https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty_pages/keith.chen/papers/LanguageWorkingPaper.pdf

Evans, Nicholas, and Stephen C. Levinson. "The Myth of Language Universals: Language Diversity and its Importance for Cognitive Science." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 32, no. 5, 2009, pp. 429-48; discussion 448-494. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/212227956?accountid=35812, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999094X.

Levinson, Stephen C.. “Language and Space.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 25, 1996, p. 353. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.2155831&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Levinson, Stephen C., et al. “Returning the Tables: Language Affects Spatial Reasoning.” Cognition, vol. 84, no. 2, June 2002, pp. 155–188.

Regier T, Carstensen A, Kemp C. “Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited.” PLoS ONE April 2016, 11(4): e0151138. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151138

“Saying ‘You’ in Japanese.” Nihonshock (language & stuff). http://nihonshock.com/2012/07/saying-you-in-japanese/

Virtual Museum of Labrador. English-Inuit Dictionary. http://www.labradorvirtualmuseum.ca/english-inuttut.htm

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought, and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. John B. Carroll (editor). The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA. 1956.

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