Unfactives

As with the same class last semester, and as happens to me often, I have been spurred to blog by an unusual utterance by a student, or should I say an utterance which in its non-target-likeness highlights an interesting linguistic phenomenon.

Some verbs, like “know”, say something about the mind of the subject of the sentence as well as the mind of the sentence’s speaker. That is, if Kim says, “Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class”, not only Eva but also Kim believes that the proposition “3 students will fail the class” is true. If Kim believes that Eva is wrong about those 3 students, she will probably choose a different verb, like “believe” or “think”, because if Kim says “Eva thinks that 3 students will fail the class”, she avoids giving the impression that she agrees with Eva.

(It’s an interesting question how many clauses deep these verbs have to be before the speaker is no longer presumed to agree with the proposition. For example, if Laura thinks that Kim believes that Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class, is it implied that Laura agrees? Does the factivity of “know” leap out of its clause and infect every person in the sentence, or does one non-factive verb break the chain? I tend to think that if Laura heard a sentence like “Eva knows that 3 students will fail”, but thinks she’s wrong, she’ll change the verb to a non-factive one in relaying that information to someone else.)

As you see from my aside, these verbs are called factive. In short, they imply that the content of noun clause that follows is factual. “Know” is one of these, as are “understand”, “realize”, “prove”, and “remember”.

The error that I saw that inspired this post was the opposite: a verb being used to imply that the content of the noun clause was false, as in “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, which all mean that the subject believes or says that the proposition that follows is false. These words, unlike factive verbs, don’t presuppose that the speaker agrees. When the newspaper says, “Dems doubt that Trump will leave willingly”, the newspaper isn’t taking the position that they are right about him. The newspaper is simply relaying the Dems’ state of mind.

(Confusingly for Japanese learners of English, “doubt”, 疑う utagau in Japanese implies that the subject has a sneaking suspicion that the proposition is true, rather than false as it is in English. Another strike against grammar-translation.)

The error that I saw used a factive verb with a negative prefix and was followed by a noun clause that the writer intended to say was false. It was something like “Many people misunderstand that the earth is flat”. The writer, as I understood it, was trying to say that many people believe that the earth is flat, but they are wrong. This left me sitting and re-reading the sentence for a few minutes as I tried to figure out just what seemed so strange about it. I did my customary COCA search and found a relative lack of noun clauses after “misunderstand” compared to “understand”, validating some of my intuition, but it didn’t give me an answer as to why.

One factor that occurred to me is that “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt” still leave the proposition standing on its own two feet epistemologically. They don’t bring up the proposition and in the same breath invalidate it – they just say that the subject disagrees with it. It is still free to exist as a proposition and be believed by other subjects. It seemed perverse to me that “misunderstand” would have a noun clause following it that was presupposed even by the speaker to be false.

As I was typing this though, I remembered “disprove”, which shares with “misunderstand” a factive root and a negative prefix. To my understanding, “disprove” is a true unfactive – if I say “Einstein disproved that matter and energy are distinct”, I am also stating my agreement with Einstein. If we accept the premise that some propositions are true and others are false, the above sentence can only be true if the proposition contained in it (“matter and energy are distinct”) is false. Therefore, the combination of negative suffix with factive verb to mean “the noun clause following this verb is definitely not true” cannot be the source of the strangeness of “misunderstand that…”

Another factor may be that unlike “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, and even “disprove”, the speaker’s and the subject’s opinions of the truth of the proposition in “misunderstand” are different. When “Trump disbelieves that” his approval ratings are low, Trump believes that the proposition is false, and the speaker doesn’t take a position on it. When “Einstein disproves that” matter and energy are distinct, Einstein and the speaker agree. However, in my student’s usage of “misunderstand”, the speaker and the subject definitely disagree. “Trump misunderstands that millions of illegals voted”, in my student’s usage, means that Trump believes it, but he is wrong. In my limited exploration of this issue, this is the only case where the speaker uses a verb to imply both that the speaker believes the proposition and that the proposition is false.

Perhaps for an unfactive verb to make sense, as “disprove” does, it has to say not only that the proposition is false, but that the subject is right that the proposition is false. Anything else is uncromulent.

Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 2

Lower Intermediate Mixed Skills

This course is a bit of a chimera – ostensibly a pre-requisite for transfer-level writing, but in practice very similar to free adult education courses. Students are quite open about this, and the extraneousness of the course in light of the growing AESL program is part of the reason that it will no longer be offered in the fall (in addition to a law passed in CA mandating that community colleges move ESL students up to transfer level writing within 3 years). On the other hand, it’s the course that I’ve taught in at this school the longest, and I have a sentimental attachment to it. In light of that, it might not be all that useful to be combing over my curriculum for areas of potential improvement, but I still want to see what I did right and what I did wrong.

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Bonanza of Correlations, Spring 2019 Edition, part 1

Advanced Academic Writing

This class is one level below transfer, which is kind of a big deal within ESL – students who pass this class are supposed to be able to hang with native-speaking teenagers in English 100 (Writing 1, English 1A, Humanities 101, or whatever your university calls it). This is the first time I’ve taught this class, and in doing my usual round of end-of-the-semester spreadsheets I’m mostly interested in what kinds of homework assignments predict overall grades, which in turn are (presumably) a good measure of English reading and writing ability. This will help me to choose assignments that are really worth doing to assign in the coming semesters and weight them appropriately.

It’s no surprise that in a writing class, writing assignments end up composing a large part of the final grade. But which writing assignments are the best predictors of the scores of all the others? To figure this out, I normalized each score (0 to 1, so some assignments don’t end up more predictive just because they were worth a lot of points), added them all up, and compared how much each individual one correlated with the total. The highest correlation is the assignment with the most predictive power for writing scores overall. This assignment turned out to be……….

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Things language teachers know #3 – competence =/= performance =/= intelligence

(For part 1 or part 2 of this series, scroll waaaaay down to 2016.)

We had something of a popularity contest in the US in 2016 between a very comfortable public speaker and a slightly stiff one. Depending on one’s prior feelings or biases, the former may have looked either charismatic or puffed up, and the latter may have looked duplicitous or booksmart.

For a casual viewer, it could sometimes seem that the comfortable speaker simply knew his stuff better, which resulted in his greater comfort communicating that knowledge to large numbers of people. He projected confidence, which encouraged trust. For people not actually listening to the words he used, it was easy and tempting to consider the self-assured speaker a more experienced, able leader, who had earned his confidence through ability and experience. He didn’t choose his words carefully, but his ease on stage seemed as if it might have come from years of being tested and winning. The careful speaker always seemed to have to work a little too hard to find words that sounded right, and therefore felt dishonest – or worse, scheming – to many.

For people who were listening to (or reading) the content of the message rather than the delivery, it was practically irresistable to come to the opposite conclusion; that the stiff, careful speaker chose her words to reflect her nuanced, well-informed thoughts, which naturally didn’t come pouring forth like a river but in precisely measured portions. Meanwhile, the confident speaker’s spell was thoroughly broken on the page. Instead of a freewheeling and charming salesman, his words seemed like those of a buggy machine translator working with Nike slogans in Armenian.

Throughout the campaign and to the present day, it has been a constant joke that President Trump’s speech patterns reflect a lazy and uneducated mind. And while it may be true that he is lazy and uneducated (as opposed to unschooled), the evidence for this is not to be found in his basic speech patterns. As language teachers (and everyone reading this is probably a language teacher), we shouldn’t condone criticism of him or anyone else that is based on the premise that verbal performance is a reliable measure of intellect.

Source. It’s probably true that Obama picked up some good public speaking skills as a result of his education – but not everyone educated learns to speak in public. Do we really want to preclude from the Presidency anyone who didn’t take Debate in school?

It is a truth that is especially evident to language teachers that the sophistication of one’s thoughts and the sophistication of one’s verbal ability can differ widely. There are people who have chunks of academic circumlocution constantly at the ready to bring to bear on topics that they have no particular expertise in. There are also people whose words never quite build a substantial enough bridge for their weighty ideas to cross. Our entire occupation is based on mismatch between our students’ intellects and their communication abilities. If one reliably predicted the other, we wouldn’t need language as a separate subject at all. This is particularly true in ELT (my field), but all language teachers from speech pathologists to teachers of creative writing courses in college know that sophisticated thoughts are no guarantee of sophisticated expressive ability.

It’s also important to keep in mind that abstract linguistic competence doesn’t always manifest in perfect form in real-world situations. There can be quite a bit of “noise” between the language that exists in a person’s head and what escapes from their mouth in a high-pressure situation like an interview on 60 Minutes or an address that will be heard by millions. The presence of a threat, the need to present oneself a particular way to particular people, a time limit, or conversely, great self-confidence can disrupt or enhance linguistic performance. As language teachers, we have workarounds or accommodations to the phenomenon of performances not always matching competence – reducing the number of observers, trying to gather a sample for evaluation unobtrusively, allowing students with anxiety disorders to skip certain portions of the test, etc. It should be no surprise to us to that a politician’s verbal performance isn’t a reliable measure of their linguistic competence, or of course that their linguistic competence isn’t a reliable measure of their intelligence.

Some criticisms (that is, almost all criticisms) of the current President are valid and if anything understated. But we should know better than to attack him for his way of talking. Obviously, this goes 10x for his wife, who seems to be, like him, far too small a person for their historical moment, but is also unfairly criticized for just sounding strange.

Source.

Again – there is plenty of other evidence that Trump is incurious and ignorant. There’s no need to insult most of our students by implication just to make that point.

Corpus Family Feud

Since I started teaching community college ESL, I’ve set aside at least one class period in all my writing classes to teach students how to use COCA and the other BYU corpora, but I struggled for a long time to incorporate it in an intuitive way into my intermediate multi-skill classes. I think its utility is clear, but the interface (computer literacy can be a problem) and baseline metalinguistic knowledge necessary just to use it have thus far stopped me from making it a regular feature. I do, however, have one activity that uses corpora (either COCA or iWeb) that is reliably entertaining and useful for classes of any level. I call it Corpus Family Feud.

Like the real Family Feud (a TV game show, for those of you outside the US and non-fans of SNL), the point is for participants to guess the most common answers to a survey question. Unlike the real Family Feud, the questions are specifically concerned with language use, and the “survey” is of corpus data rather than 100 people randomly by phone.

Also like the real Family Feud, it’s the studio’s (i.e., the teacher’s) job to prepare the questions and collate the survey answers beforehand, and then reveal them to the participants after they have made guesses.

The basic steps are:

  1. Before class, prepare sentences with one or more blanks, and then find the most common words that fill those blanks according to corpus data. 3-5 total sentences for one session seems to be a good rule of thumb to keep interest high throughout the activity.
  2. Also before class, prepare a slideshow (I use Google Slides) that features the sentence with blanks, directions for what kinds of words go in the blanks, and the answers in list form. The answers should be set to be invisible when the slide loads and appear on subsequent clicks.
  3. During class time, announce that you are playing a game, and display the slide with the first sentence. Tell explicitly what kinds of words can be used to fill in the blank, and tell in general terms that you found the top 5 words that people actually use to fill in that blank in their real communication in the real world.
  4. Have students write down the top 5 words that they think fill that blank in the real world. Announce that they will get 1 point for each of their answers that is actually in the top 5. Tell them also that it doesn’t matter which order they put them in; they get 1 point for any answer that was in the top 5.
  5. After a few minutes, announce that you will start displaying the answers. Drum roll and display the first answer. Students will probably applaud, shriek, or say, “ohhhhh”. Remind them to keep track of how many points they have as you continue drum rolling and displaying the answers in sequence.
  6. After you’ve displayed every answer, ask the students who has 3 points, 4 points, or 5 points until you figure out who the winner is. Give the winner a piece of candy or some other gold star-equivalent. Repeat with the next sentence.

As a variation, you can choose 5 words in advance, display them when you display the sentence, and ask the students to put them in order. This allows you to choose words other than the true top 5 according to corpora (which are often boring words that nobody ever thinks of, like “be” or “doing”), but requires you to give points only for correct order of words rather than giving points for any word that appears in the actual list.

For example, let’s say your intermediate multi-skill class is covering gerunds (I mean “covering” as in it came up for one reason or another, whether as a front-loaded chapter of a synthetic syllabus or as focus on form after a task). You might decide on a few chunks where gerunds are commonly used, like “I enjoy ___” or “____ is important”. These would be the questions for your game. Your slides might look like this:

I really ought to make this look more game show-like…

I display the frequencies, but this is probably unnecessary. In the variation where you supply the words, it might look like this:

Where only the ranking and frequency numbers appear on click and the words are displayed from the beginning.

Other variations I have used in the past look like this:

There is almost literally no end to the kinds of phrases or grammar you can use to play this game. Besides an excuse to use corpora in a mid-level class, this helps turn what could be an abstract grammar lesson into one that respects chunking and the conventions, rather than just the rules, of language. Have fun!

Virtue Signalling, feigned interactions, and In-N-Out

Virtue signalling” has sort of become this generation’s “politically correct”, a term of abuse for supposedly vacuous public communication by the political left. Much like political correctness, it actually describes something universal across political groups, and use of the term is itself is an example of the phenonemon it describes (i.e., calling something out as “virtue signalling” is a way of virtue signalling to one’s peers, much like decrying “political correctness” is a literally politically correct thing to do in certain circles).

Certain kinds of virtue signalling consist of messages ostensibly sent to the out-group, actually meant for the in-group to see, where the appearance of communication with the out-group is an important part of the real message. The real act of communication seems to be, “Look at me, trying to talk to these savages! That’s how committed I am to our cause!” Unfortunately, a lot of political communication these days really consists of ostentatious displays of self-sacrifice to one’s own tribe, where the sacrifice lies in having to tolerate communication with members of the other tribe.

I’ve covered this ground before, but have a few new insights:

  1. The proportion of apparent communication between tribes which is really feigned communication designed for consumption by members of one’s tribe may be increasing
  2. Some communities place a higher value on communication with out-groups than others, perversely raising the likelihood that it is feigned

The first is just a result of the increasing siloing of discourse; communities have more opportunities for self-selection with cable news and social media than any other time in history. Few conservatives watch MSNBC, and fewer liberals watch Fox News. Odds are, when you see a commentator or guest that appears to be ideologically opposed to the main viewership of whichever cable news network you are watching, you are seeing a feigned communication in which the fact that the host is trying hard to “reach the other side” is the real message of value, and that message is solely intended for his or her own political tribe. Any bonafides that the heel commentator may possess only serve to increase the value and validity of the real message. This has been true of talk radio and conservative commentary since at least the days of Wally George, but the fact that any subculture can now have a facebook group or YouTube channel all its own makes the incentive for in-group signalling so much more valuable than genuine out-group communication that a high proportion of fake out-group communication is inevitable.

The second was brought to my attention by my wife, who asked me what the “Revelation 3:20” on the bottom of our In-N-Out burger wrapper meant. She had heard that In-N-Out food comes with Bible verses written discreetly somewhere on the packaging, but still couldn’t decode this apparent combination of TOEFL vocabulary and time of day. It hadn’t occurred to me that In-N-Out’s Bible verses could also be an example of feigned communication, but of course I grew up in a household that at least pretended to think that church was important and hadn’t thought of how opaque something like “Nahum 1:7” (on the bottom of a Double-Double) looks to someone raised without any exposure to the Bible. A straightforward interpretation of the presence of these phrases is that to Christians, this is like whispering a codeword, a message which shows insider knowledge and expertise, while to non-Christians, it is pretty much indistinguishable from “Xanthan Gum”. If that were the sum of its meanings to both groups, it would be either straightforward in-group communication or simply failed communication rather than feigned communication. However, I doubt the owners of In-N-Out, conservative Christians though they are, would waste ink telling fellow Christians something they already knew or giving non-Christians the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal number to look up. They might instead be communicating something to their fellow Christians besides literal Bible verses – they are communicating the fact that they are trying to reach non-Christians, a message with special currency among evangelical Christians. Seen this way, the use of Bible verses makes more sense – it is vastly more important to put the message in an emic form that Christians recognize, since they are the true recipients of the message, than in a form that non-Christians would, since they are only the feigned recipients. In a community where outreach is a core value, feigned communication with out-groups is an especially tempting form of in-group signalling, and although I haven’t been to church in many, many years, I suspect feigned communication with non-Christians is pretty common. I noticed feigned communication first in Japan, but clearly this type of feigned communication takes place in other groups with similar ways of defining themselves.

Source. Hard to believe this was ever questioned.

Not meaning what you mean

When a colleague in ESL or English answers “how are you?” With “I’m well”, I always think the substitution of “well” for “good” is a bit like pulling rank. It’s the linguistic equivalent of casually mentioning that you’d “been praying about something” or commenting on the gluten content of foods that your neighbor is eating – the invocation of a hierarchy that you know the you place yourself highly on, and everyone else lower. I do not accept the premise of that hierarchy (nor the others that I mentioned), but explaining that point is another long conversation that ends up making me look like the pedant.

Often, I find that in these conversations the core of the misunderstanding (from my perspective) is that there is a correct way to use words and that the speaker is showing off that he knows it.

There’s a switch in my mind that keeps flipping back and forth between annoyance and acquiescence at people’s tendency to talk about words this way – as if they had “true” or “original” meanings clear as day to prudent and thoughtful individuals (like the speaker), but which idiots (like you) are prone to getting wrong.

You see this most clearly nowadays in the Princess Bride meme, which always goes something like the following:

(can you believe Inigo Montoya and Saul Berenson on Homeland are the same actor?)

LITERALLY YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD. I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANSYOU KEEP SAYING 'IRONY. I DON'T THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS.

You might see this idea that words contain meanings which fluent speakers are capable of getting wrong (in its Princess Bride form or otherwise) deployed a variety of ways (here is one), but usually to condescend to someone and argue against their position ad hominem – the implication being that someone who is so slipshod with words must be mentally deficient in general. It also has a general-purpose use, outside of any particular argument, to serve as an in-group signifier. In these cases, the person complaining about other people’s poor language use is asserting his or her status as a “correct” language user. A knight of the old code, if you will, a defender of the faith.

The idea (that words contain true meanings which fluent speakers can be wrong about) behind this meme is clearly wrong, and no one who ever heard the words “social construction” as an undergrad should ever think otherwise. Words can only mean what speakers think they mean, and saying that someone doesn’t know what a word that they just used means usually is really a way of saying that usage is known but frowned upon (i.e., I am classier than you).

This is a transparent power play, often classist, chauvinist, or elitist. Certain words (I only know Japanese and English, but both languages have plenty) in languages are wedges used to distinguish members of groups, as in the story behind shibboleth. Two groups which seem to always exist in highly literate societies are “those whose language, culture, and customs are objectively correct” and “those whose are particular, local, and temporary”, and many words like “ain’t”, “a whole nother”, or the above memes, in addition to grammatical structures like “might could”, “to boldly go” or “It’s me”, serve as the stars on our proverbial Sneetch bellies. These usages aren’t really mistakes so much as an open flank for pedants to attack and claim the position of “correct language user” as outlined above. They have a negative sociolinguistic meaning, not an incorrect literal meaning.

Some pedants claim that such overcorrection is necessary, because languages need standards to maintain intelligibility. But intelligibility is never the issue. I’ve seen people point out the supposed illogic of a double negative in sentences like “I ain’t never”, but have never seen anyone actually act on the mistaken belief that the two negatives cancel each other out –  the supposed confusion is always feigned and exaggerated. If a pedant has ever legitimately been confused by “literally”, I’ve never seen it. The claim that by correcting misuse pedants are defending standards is doubly false – first because the violation is really an opportunity for them to play referee, and second because the standard doesn’t exist, or at least not as described.

Now, there are reasons as language teachers to treat words as objects of study in themselves, and use the metaphor of words “having” meaning, although as trained linguists we know that this can only be in the sense that an electromagnetic frequency “has” color or a country “has” borders. But grammar pedants are not all language teachers, and a conversation in the break room is not (generally) a language lesson. Turning lunch into a site of linguistic one-upsmanship literally decimates the mood of the break room, and is fulsomely ironic because as an otherwise full-time pedant you should be on a break.

Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;

}

}

ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {

System.out.println(“それはおかしいでしょう”);

}

if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {

Human.run();

}

None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

A Taxonomy of Untranslatability

I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.

Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).

Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.

We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.

uncaptioned image
Source. Note that they get the pronunciation wrong – why not just ask someone on Twitter?

Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.

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