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They _don't_ have a word for it!

From:Herman Miller <hmiller@...>
Date:Wednesday, August 29, 2001, 1:30
One of the things that isn't immediately apparent in traditional grammars
and lexicons: what concepts present in English or other popular languages
are _absent_ from the described language? Of course, many words with a
technical or historical background are likely to be absent: the fact that
an Ancient Elvish language had no word for "internet", for instance, is
hardly remarkable. Words that serve grammatical functions, like "the" in
English, might be expected to vary a great deal from one language to the
next. But the absence of a particular word in a typical vocabulary list is
also unremarkable, as most such lists are incomplete.

What I'd like to start is an "anti-vocabulary" list for my languages -- a
list of words and concepts that have no direct equivalent in the language.
In a way this is the opposite of a list like the words in Howard
Rheingold's book _They Have a Word for It_, although the idea is similar.
Instead of words like Sanskrit "maya" (to pick a random example from the
book), defined as "The mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the
reality it represents", the list would consist of common English words,
like "law" and "animal", along with explanations of the different
conceptual organization entailed by these "gaps" in vocabulary.

Take "law", for instance. It's a common concept in Human language, but one
that's very difficult to express in any of the Zireen languages. Zireen
social structure is very different from that of Humans. Norms of social
interaction become established by massive popular support, not by the
edicts of a privileged class of legislators. Private actions and thoughts
remain free and unregulated. Translation of the word "law" depends heavily
on context. "It's against the law" as an explanation of why someone might
be reluctant to do something could be translated something like "People
with badges would take us away and lock us in a cage for a long time if
someone caught us doing it". Even that would be a poor explanation; it
would take a lengthy discussion of human psychology and history to get
across the full meaning of "law".

"Animal", in its common English usage, is a word that represents a concept
foreign to the Gjarrda language. Gjarrda has only the sense of "animal"
that contrasts with "vegetable" and "mineral". Humans are unquestionably
"animal" according to the Gjarrda definition. But in common English usage,
the word "animal" most typically _excludes_ humans, and refers to the
"baser" qualities of human nature when referring specifically to humans.
Even when referring to non-humans, "animal" tends to be more specific than
the Gjarrda equivalent; the "typical" English animal is a quadrupedal,
land-dwelling beast, more specifically a mammal. (But being quadrupedal
isn't essential, as kangaroos are considered animals.) "Animal" is often
contrasted with "bird", "fish", and even occasionally with "reptile".
Invertebrates are usually only considered "animals" in the technical sense
of the word. In Gjarrda, sessile animals and some kinds of parasites may
informally be thought of as "plants", but people and insects are never
excluded from the "animal" category, and there's no trace of any
association of the word "animal" with "sub-human" or any despicable human
qualities. So the English word "animal" almost always requires special
attention in translation to Gjarrda. Often the most appropriate equivalent
is "vareol", meaning "non-person", but sometimes another word is more

Anyone have any cool examples from their langs of interesting gaps in the

languages of Azir------> ---<>---
hmiller (Herman Miller)   "If all Printers were determin'd not to print any  email password: thing till they were sure it would offend no body,
\ "Subject: teamouse" /  there would be very little printed." -Ben Franklin


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