Field of Science

Missing Words

My dictionary lists several Chinese words for disdain, but none for discourage. The government in Orwell's 1984 would have loved this, as they -- along with many contemporary writers (I'm talking about you, Bill Bryson) -- believed that you don't have a word for something you can't think about it. I guess China has no need for the motivational speaker industry.
You can't be discouraged if you don't have a word for it.

Unfortunately for the government of Oceania, there's very little evidence this is true. The availability of certain words in a language may have effects on memory or speeded recognition, but probably does nothing so drastic as making certain thoughts inaccessible. I think examples like the one above make it clear just how unlikely the hypothesis was to be true to begin with.

photo credit here.


Brad Patterson said...

Thanks for this post. I've enjoyed following both by googlreader and on twitter. :)

I completely know what your direction is with disdain and discourage and I would say you're not far from the mark, having lived in China for 3 years and feeling like I know and at times don't understand this excessive revernence for authority.

That being said, and not to 'burst your bubble' but just to keep things balanced here, I've looked up discourge in my favorite 中文 iphone app, Pleco and among the 5 available dictionaries, every one has multiple possibilities for 'discourage'.

Hope this helps. Cheers, Brad

GamesWithWords said...

@Brad: You actually bring up a nice related issue. When we say that one word in one language is the equivalent of another word in another language, that's a hypothesis. It might not be true. I don't believe there are any good ways right now of testing such a hypothesis.

That's part of what makes these language-x-has-no-word-for-y arguments somewhat inane. Whether there is or isn't such a word is left partly to the tastes of the lexicographer.

My dictionary (published in Taiwan, btw) didn't choose to translate any existing words in Mandarin into 'discourage'. Yours (mostly Mainland dictionaries, right?) did.

Anonymous said...

There's a rather large literature on the relation between language and cognition that's been growing strongly since the early 1900s. Check out the Wikipedia entry for linguistic relativity (aka, the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis").

Brad Patterson said...

@lingpipe thnx for the great link!

@gameswithwords sorry to get back so late on your reply! Just back from a week vacation. ;)

I love this 'thought space' ! X=Y is way too reductionist. I speak french and english mostly wife my wife, and yet we both lived in China for 3 years so there are a few words which, even if they have translations, simply aren't the same in another language. 舒服,麻烦,方便 comfortable, annoying and convenient... sound like very typical words but their meaning in chinese IS different.


I am using all Pleco's 8 dictionaries, which are listed on their website as both "mainland and taiwan-friendly":

ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary edited by John DeFrancis (with almost 200,000 entries), the brand-new ABC English-Chinese Dictionary also edited by John DeFrancis, the Chinese-Chinese Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian, the 280,000-entry 21st Century English-Chinese Dictionary, and the Tuttle Learner's Chinese-English Dictionary. (several free dictionaries like CC-CEDICT and HanDeDict are also available as free downloads)