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 http://www.aiaioo.com/cms).

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
Advertisements

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

  1. Although I cannot think of an exact English equivalent to ‘whichth’, I am not sure whether many other languages have a one-word counterpart to ‘umpteen’, meaning a largish quantity that the speaker disapproves of. A typical example might be “I’ve told you umpteen times not to do that, and I won’t tell you again.”

  2. In Finnish, you can write: “Kuinka mones lapsi tämä on sinulle?” meaning “How umpteenth child this is to you?”. Funnily, Google Translate translates “Kuinka mones lapsi?” as “Umpteenth child?”. With a proper question intonation this might work as an English question, but still a very unnatural one.

  3. We can, in Dutch: “Uw hoeveelste zoon is dat?” – “Your (hoeveel < hoe veel = how much/many) son is that [it/this/he]?". Answer: "Mijn zoveelste!" – "My (zoveel < zo veel = so much/many, more or less ) umpteenth!"

  4. Your question is very interesting. Full disclosure: I belong to the MIT school as a linguist.

    First, if you are interested in non-traductibility, you may want to consult http://www.amazon.com/Women-Dangerous-Things-George-Lakoff/dp/0226468046. Yes, there are lots of terms which cannot be translated from one language into another.

    Second, when speaking about UG Chomsky does not imply that every word (or phrase) is immediately translatable in another language. He refers to the fact that it is understandable in one’s I-language. You just offered an emprical proof by coining the word “whichth”, which I do understand. How come I do? It’s got to be in my I-language. Moreover, I can traslate it into an expression in French, equally unusual, “*le combien”, and into Romanian “al catelea (copil)”, which is acceptable. But they are all comprehensible, and this is my point.

  5. This whole discussion is predicated on a misunderstanding of translation, that you require a word-for-word transfer. You do not even need a sentence-for-sentence transfer, to translate the sense use as many words or sentences as you need. Many of the replies above demonstrate this well.

    Makes me think of the argument advanced for saving endangered languages, that there is traditional knowledge somehow locked up in the languages. No there isn’t, though you might require many more words to express that knowledge in some other language. You preserve languages as a record of human invention, and you help it continue in use for the people who use it and how need protections from the killer languages.

    I do not go along with the Chomskian idea of universal grammars, what we all share is not within us but outside in the structure of the world that we all inhabit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s