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:


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:


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) {



if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {;


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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Hegemonic metaphor

Assuming you don’t believe in free will – and I am of the opinion that no one should – have you ever tried to explain it to someone who’s never considered the question? Among the many stumbling blocks is the fact that you might find need for words like “choice” and “decide” and even “your mind” in your explanation. That is, you use language that implies the existence of the concept that you are arguing doesn’t exist.

My colleagues and I were in the middle of trying to choose a topic for the final essay of a writing class when the topic of free will came up. The book that we assigned, The Power of Habit by Duhigg, has a final chapter that leaves a tasty morsel of philosophy dangling in front of the reader in the form of the question: Is there a meaningful difference in the decision-making power of someone who commits murder while sleepwalking and someone who gambles impulsively to the point of bankrupting her family many times over? Some people thought this would be a good foundation for a final essay, and I disagreed. I think free will is too heavy a lift for a 5-6 page paper in an ESL class, and only part of the reason is that it’s a hard topic in general. The main reason is that it’s a hard topic especially for language learners in that explaining one’s position involves a lot of scare quotes around otherwise normal vocabulary because one is using words while consciously denying that they really mean what most people think they do. It involves a great deal of questioning the meanings of the very words that we are using to explain our position, words which often come pre-packaged with an assumption that free will is real.

I am very fond of the story of the philosopher Wittgenstein asking his friend why people thought for so long that the sun revolved around the earth. His friend responded that “It just looks that way”, to which Wittgenstein posed the question, “What would it look like if it looked like the earth revolved around the sun?” (Paraphrasing, of course). The palette of intuitive concepts, what things naturally “look like”, is quite limited in our species. Whoever was the first one to think that maybe the relationship of the sun to the earth was the other way around almost certainly had to explain it to her tribe with reference to what came intuitively to them, that the sun “looked like” it went around the earth. Even stronger than the intuition that small things (as the sun appears to us) go around big things (as the earth looks from its surface) are intuitions like dualism of mind and body, linear time, heritability, purity (of substances, but also of blood, morals, etc.), and free will. These concepts are not just commonplace assumptions about how the world works, but they also infiltrate our language and force us to assert them offhand while having unrelated conversations. If I say “I decided to write a blog post about free will”, I’ve made an implicit argument already with my use of the phrase “I decided”. It’s the same if I say that “In my mind, I feel that duality is false”. Arguing against these concepts requires using language that presupposes them.

I call these concepts hegemonic metaphors* because they subsume even the arguments against them. Just like making extremely convincing arguments against capitalism is a highly marketable skill, arguing against the existence of a “will” fills the listener’s head with many repetitions of the words “choose” and “mind” and implicitly argues for the validity of the concepts that they stand for. I “choose” not to make my ESL students play this game.

*As with many of my posts, this naming reflects both a lack of reading of real philosophers who probably already a name for this phenomenon as well as a desire to give my posts the most pretentious titles possible.

The corpus of rejection

Every few weeks, depending on the season, I get a message like the following in my inbox:

Dear [name],

On behalf of the application review committee, we thank you for the submission of your application for the [position]. We recognize that the application process requires a great deal of time and effort on your part. Regrettably, you were not selected to move forward for an interview.

[more stuff that I never read]


[Office of Somethingorother, name of college]

The slightest amount of experience with this type of letter lets you figure out the gist after the first line, or even from the existence of the email itself, coming as it does prefaced “DO NOT REPLY”, a subject line with the illocutionary force of a restraining order.

I’ve gotten enough of these over time (more than some, not as many as others – adjunct is a job with a depressing number of grizzled veterans sporting depressing amounts of grizzle) to start noticing patterns in the language that these messages use. A mini-corpus thereof can be found below.

Image result for gordon ramsay fuck off
Spoiler alert: This level of frankness would be refreshing.
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