Within pseudo-linguistics, the misconception that some languages have words so unique to themselves that they are untranslatable, is as common as a ‘latte’ in a Starbucks. Articles on the extra-ordinarily peculiarity of words from a vast array of languages, shown off as exhibitions in a curiosity cabinet, are presented as linguistics, when in reality they are to linguistics what the Bible is to an atheist.
Next to four, or forty, no let’s say 54958 and ¾ Inuit words for snow, a word like ‘l’ésprit d’éscalier’, so uniquely French that it presumably is not found in English – staircase wit – seems to be a favourite one in these texts. The problem here is that articles dealing with words like the aforementioned ones are sadly read and accepted as true by the vast majority of humans, and yet, the paradoxical in claiming that a world is untranslatable seems to evade most of these people’s minds.
The main problem here however is not a naïve but harmless fascination with linguistic diversity, but rather the ways in which this naïve fascination has been turned into a less cute ideology of linguistic evolution, which in turn has been adopted by a number of colonial powers throughout history in order to facilitate the expansion of a number of colonial languages. This happened in China, where Mandarin through the use of a common script became the accepted standard language in China, and this happened even more visibly throughout the British Empire, where a false belief that certain languages did not have the capacity to express certain ideas helped English become the global monster it is today.
Untranslatability however is of course a myth; while a specific language may have a more efficient way of expressing a specific thing, this does not mean that another language cannot understand or perceive the same thing. At the same time however, this dismissal of linguistic evolution has in similar ways been used to support colonial powers linguistic expansion. The argument being that if every language is inherently capable of expressing every human experience, then the attempts to save an endangered language seems ridiculous. And indeed, many people argue that language revitalisation programmes constitute a waste of money, precisely because of the fact that they mean that it does not matter what language one speaks, as long as one speaks.
Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, a rose is a rose no matter what name it is given.
The main fault here however is to mistake language revitalisation for a wish to keep a dying language alive against better knowledge, when what language revitalisation really is, is a way to make sure that human knowledge embedded in a culture’s collective memory is not lost forever. Moreover, when people state that an endangered language cannot possibly be modern enough to express modern concepts, they mistake language for something which, like human society, follows basic ideas of hierarchies. While colonialism and class has created an idea of certain languages as less suitable for human interaction then others – an idea as old as language itself, think of Ancient Greek who gave us the word barbarians, from βαρβαρος, i.e. someone who can’t speak proper Greek – it is important to realise that no language is better suited than another to express a certain idea. Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, a language spoken by some 340 people in Paraguay is as capable of adapting to changing circumstances as say English.
No language is inherently weaker than another language, and to believe that e.g. English is more suitable for scientific debates than say a near-extinct language in the Great Western Australian Desert is to misunderstand the way language functions in the first place. A language creates words for new phenomena whenever it needs a word to describe a new thing, and this ability to invent new words is inbuilt in all human languages.
While it is foolish to talk of the Gaelic word cianalas as untranslatable, or to deem another language as inferior for not having a one-word translation of the same, the existence of the word does say things about the ways in which the Gaelic culture has chosen to interact with the world. In other words, to quote Nettle, ‘the vocabulary of a language is an inventory of the items a culture talks about and has categorized in order to make sense of the world and survive in a local ecosystem’. Thus, whenever a language dies, an entire wealth of knowledge relating to a specific area of expertise is lost, be it marine life as with many Oceanic languages, or snow as is the case among many reindeer herding tribes such as the Evenk and the Saami.
Let me give you a couple of examples to demonstrate what I mean by cultural linguistic diversity; in English, if I were to say ‘Iàin killed his wife’, most native speakers would assume that Iàin was an evil man who killed the woman he had married, but the truth is that the use of his in this sentence is ambiguous. Technically his wife could have referred to another man’s wife, say Sean’s wife, as his is used to refer to both his – someone else, and his – his own. In Swedish however, this ambiguity is avoided by the use of two different words; when referring back to one’s own possessions, or in this case one’s own wife, the word sin is used, whereas someone talking about something belonging to another man – his – would use the word hans. Swedish cultural practice has in other words seen it important enough to create a word to describe this difference.
Similarly, where Finnish does not bother to distinguish between gendered pronouns, and the word hän is used to refer to both males and females, English on the other hand uses three gendered pronouns, i.e. he, she and it.
In Japanese, counting becomes a veritable task, as the make-up of an object is essential for the speaker to decide what count-word to use, whereas several other languages deems it impractical to have any count-words for numbers above say five.
The only thing these examples show however, is that human existence is a diverse thing, and that given time, the inherent wish to communicate will create ways of talking about culture specific things in very efficient and incredibly detailed ways. That a Gael is ‘in his teacher’ if he is a teacher (tha e na thìdsear), whereas an English-speaker simply is a teacher does not mean that Gaelic is in any ways more or less peculiar than English. That the Hawai’ian language has ways of distinguishing possession depending on whether a thing is alienably or inalienably possessed, whereas Gaelic on the other hand does not have a verb to express possession does not in any way prove that a language can have untranslatable words or concepts, it merely shows that the culture in which a language is spoken has deemed it important to create linguistic definitions for some very culture specific things.