Langage (Saturday, 2012 June 30)

June 30, 2012

Evi asked me via email a little while ago about any final thoughts I had. I’m still struggling to figure out what those are. In the meantime, perhaps you will appreciate this Ph. D. retrospective by Philip Guo.

So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren’t going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result. For example, my six years of Ph.D. training have made me wiser, savvier, grittier, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective than I was as a fresh college graduate. [My italics.]

In the meantime, I’m going to write about a thing that I’ve been thinking about for a week or two. Last regional meeting, we got into an argument about whether the English language has more words than the French one. One of the new girls asserted this; she had been having trouble translating some document and she chalked this up to the insufficient vocabulary available in French. When I expressed qualms, she responded: "No, it’s true — I looked it up." An example of something she found difficult to translate: "Life Skills", a term we use here to mean the kinds of common sense "street smarts" that you need to get by in the world (time and money management, self-esteem, etc.). Everyone had something to say about it, and what I had to say came out somewhat more incoherent than everything else, so let me just express myself once the right way in print.

  1. The words "Life" and "Skills" are both available in French: "vie" and "habilité" or "competence", respectively. If you can’t figure out how to translate the phrase, it has nothing to do with vocabulary in the sense you are talking about. You are talking about phrases, not about words. And more specifically, you are talking about connotations.

  2. You can’t just "look it up". Questions of words and language aren’t like the height of Mount Everest (peak somewhere around 29,029 feet above sea level, with base elevations ranging from around 13,800 feet to 17,100 feet). The idea that you could have just found out on the Internet that the English language has more words in it is ridiculous, because the question isn’t well-defined.

    Let me rephrase. I’ve "looked it up" and I’ve seen a lot of goofy thinking on the subject ("7x more words than French", "English has about 200,000 words in common use, German 184,000 and French 100,000", "Web 2.0 is the millionth word of the English Language despite the fact that "Web 2.0" are at least two words which all already exist in the English language). Reliability of information is important in Cameroon — it’s common to hear from natives that AIDS is really a weapon created by the US to poison black people. ("Guys, guys — you’ll never believe what I just found out at the bar!").

Look, I don’t care a whole lot about the question. Maybe there are more words in English, maybe not. I don’t have a horse in this race. Certainly I don’t have any idea myself. I’m not a linguist; I’ve never studied linguistics. But I have studied people who have studied linguistics, and those authorities, when faced with questions like this, equivocate: OED doesn’t want to say how many words are in the English language, even says that it is *quite probable* that English has more words than *most comparable world languages*. Language Log visits these things from time to time too. The question is not well-defined because you need to first settle on what "word" means, and you need to settle on what it means for those words to be "in the English language". Are we counting words, senses, forms/cases? In computer science we use the words "debug", "byte" and "hexadecimal"; do those count? How about "Alzheimer’s"?

Just for laughs, I asked J-C, who teaches French, what he thought. He said French definitely had more words, because in French there are often multiple words that mean the same thing (pleurer, pleurnicher, and se lamenter all essentially mean "cry"). Of course, there are quite a few words for it in English too — weep, bawl, sob — but he doesn’t know any of those, so of course he thinks English is less expressive. Thus my conclusion about all of this: people assess how expressive the language is based on how well they can express themselves in it. That’s what really bothers me, is that the woman who asserts that the French language is defective is really just blaming the language for her own failings. I don’t care how many words there are in the language, but I don’t want to hear that it’s not as expressive because you don’t know the vocabulary all that well.

If you want my opinion, I think ramasser is more expressive than English "collect" or "gather", and se débrouiller is not exactly "to get by" nor débrouillard "resourceful".

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