Month: April 2014

Funky language features – some things that you can never say in English and what that might tell us about human languages

Inexpressibility in English

There is a common expression that is widely used in South Indian languages that can’t be translated into English no matter how hard you try.  This post is about things that can’t be expressed in certain languages.  There are some things that cannot be expressed in even the most eclectic of languages though they can in others.

Now I have the unenviable task of trying to tell you in English what cannot be said in English!

Here goes.

Imagine two grown-up people A and B who meet on the street in South India.  B is with her son.  When A meets B, A feels that it would be impolite to not inquire about B’s son.

So, A asks B an open question about B’s son.

B replies, with a big smile and slow polite nods:  “This is my 2nd son.”

What is the question that A would have asked B, to elicit that response from B?

It is impossible to frame an open question in English that would elicit the answer that B gave.

But this exchange is something that South Indian parents have all the time.

When two South Indian parents run into each other, it is highly likely that one might ask the other (in their language) something like, “Oh, what a cute little boy/girl/child!  Whichth son of yours is this?”

The other parent would then reply very proudly: “This is my eldest son/daughter/child” or “This is my 2nd son/daughter/child”.

There is no way to ask someone in English that question because the word or even the concept of “whichth” doesn’t exist in English (and possible doesn’t exist in any European language).

Here’s how you would say that in Kannada (a language used in South India).

A:  Ivanu nimma yeshtaneya maga?  (This boy your whichth son?)

B:  Ivanu nanna eradaneya maga.  (This boy my 2nd son)

Acknowledgement:  This phrase was something I overheard someone discussing when I was a child.  I think it was someone working on translation theory.  I have no recollection of who it was.

Conditional Inexpressibility in South Indian languages

In South Indian languages, there are two ways of saying “and” / “or”.  One way is through a word meaning “and” or “or”.  In Kannada, the words would be “matthu” (means “and”) and “athava” (means “or”).

Another way is using a suffix.  In Kannada you can say something and add the suffix “aa” to indicate “or”.  You can add the suffix “uu” to indicate “and”.

You will find that in South Indian languages you can only express ORs of ANDs using the suffixes.  You cannot express ANDs of ORs.

So, using the suffix forms, we can say “A and B or C and D” but not “A or B and C or D”.

In Kannada, that would be “A-uu B-uu -aa, C-uu D-uu -aa”.  You cannot say “A-aa B-aa -uu, C-aa D-aa -uu”.

You will find a similar restriction in Japanese (though Japanese does not have a suffix form for AND).

Implications for Practical Linguistics

Years ago, we worked on a research project related to natural language programming.  We designed a programming language that would allow humans to program computers by saying things to them.  So, you could say things like: “x égale 2. Si x multiplié par 3 est moins que 5, dis “Salut” sinon dis “Ciao”!

The natural language programming system was designed to help students in rural India learn programming (they often don’t know English and so can’t use an English-based programming language).

It works only in the domain of numbers.  A Fibonacci number generator would looked like this in bad German: “z ist gleich 1. y ist gleich 1. x ist gleich 0. während x ist weniger als 13, z wird y plus x. Danach x wird y und y wird z. Danach schreib z.

(We didn’t put much work into it.  It’s just a research prototype.  But you can play with the technology yourself at

Anyway, since South Indian languages and Japanese favour AND over OR, in this programming language, we specified that AND gets precedence over OR.

Implications for Universal Grammar

I recently read a small book on the latest efforts by Chomsky’s research group to find common grammatical frameworks that can be applied to all languages.

Personally, I do not much like the approach of using grammar to try to explain language.

People can speak a language even if they have only ever heard a few sentences in that language.

They would of course have to limit their use of the language to those few sentences and the variants thereof, but they are still generating language.

It is impossible to construct a grammar of a language from a few sentences.

So it is unlikely that the human language comprehension/generation system uses grammar as we formally understand the concept.

Chomsky believes that there is some language faculty that has a grammar of sorts that generates language and that the output of this faculty is transformed into Chinese or English as the case may be through the use of some simple transformation tools.

If this were true, than one can argue that what is expressible in one language must be expressible in another language.

This must be true at least for commonly used expressions.

But we find that it is not true.

The fact that obvious concepts can’t be expressed in a language with as large a vocabulary as English makes me wonder if there is a common universal grammar, and if languages are as comprehensive as we’d like to believe.

If all languages are derivable from a common grammar, then a concept such as “whichth” which is so common in Indian languages, should have been derivable from that common universal grammar in English just as it is in South Indian languages.

It seems more likely that languages evolve from societal and environmental needs (needs to express things from a cultural or practical perspective) and are nothing but a set of shared signals.

These shared signals eventually evolve to allow for the use of parameters, to allow for a fitting of expressions into slots recursively, that gives rise to an appearance of grammar.

Each language evolves that appearance of grammar independently and there’s nothing more to it.  Or at least, that’s someone’s pet theory.

For some other surprisingly non-universal language features, you might want to take a look at two of our articles on deictic references and ‘possessive verbs’:

  1. Funky language features – the third spatial deictic reference in Japanese, Korean and Tamil
  2. Funky language features – the mystery of the missing possessive verb