Missing words in English?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Athelwulf, Mar 30, 2007.

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    If patte refers to the entire limb, then why are we calling it a limb instead of a leg? In English we refer to all the limbs of quadrupeds as legs. Only bipeds have arms. It seems to me that using a different word for a dog's leg and a human's leg is just as unnecessary as having a different word for a dog's mouth and a human's mouth or a dog's act of eating and a human's act of eating. It's been more than a century since we discovered that Homo sapiens is just another species of mammal. We can safely use the same terminology for our physiology as for other mammals' physiology, without confusing anybody. French and German are hanging onto obsolete vocabulary, something we see no need for. Just as they hang onto obsolete grammatical paradigms like verb conjugation and noun gender.
    Disagreement? Disagreement! Dian means "electricity" and hua means "speech." Dian hua means "telephone." Is it one word or two? Xiao means "small" and gou means "dog." Xiao gou means "puppy." One word or two? Got that? Okay now: Shi means "stone" and you means oil. Shi you means "petroleum." Hey that's not compound, you say, that's one word. Well do you realize that it's simply a literal translation of scientific Latin "petro-oleum"? Okay, you're pretty sure about those, are ya? Then how about this one: Dong means "east" and xi means "west." Dong xi, is it one word or two? How about after I tell you that dong xi means "thing"? Chinese is full of compounds whose etymology is utterly unclear. It's not that we can't define a "word" in Chinese. The whole concept of "word" may not even apply to the language.
    Once again, your source is simply unfamiliar with spoken English. We say "How do you order a sandwich?" "You" is universally used as an impersonal pronoun. And yes it's ambiguous, it's not obvious if you're asking the listener how he does it or how everybody does it. But we're never confused, we always understand. Your source is not even familiar with the formal way of saying this: "How does one order a sandwich."One" is the "proper" equivalent to French on and German man, but we seldom use it except in writing. You really don't have a very good source about English usage. Whoever it is, you should stop listening to him or her; he doesn't know our language very well.
    Your source knows less about Spanish than English. Se is the dative case of the reflexive pronoun, meaning "oneself." It's a broken declension, there is no nominative case. Se habla español literally means "Spanish speaks itself." It's just as silly as our way of asking a vegetarian, "How do you order a hamburger?" And ambiguity pops up. You're not supposed to use that construction when you're talking about people, but it happens. I see advertisements saying, "Se cuidan niños." They mean to say, "Child care is available," but they're saying literally, "Children take care of themselves." The first time I saw that I really had a hard time figuring out what they were telling me. Are Mexican children more self-sufficient than American children?
    "Quench" is not the right word. You don't quench a person the way you feed a person. You quench a thirst or a fire.
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  3. Roman Banned Banned

    We use "get the..." as a common way to fill in the verbs we lack, as in "Feed the kids and make sure to get them something to drink."
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  5. Facial Valued Senior Member

    I am very aware of the reflexive se. There's a different form of se that I'm talking about, the generalized demonstrative pronoun.

    The advertisement is wholly correct, under the generalized se. When it says "Se cuidan niños" it does not mean "Children take care of themselves" - unless it's meant to be sarcastic or humorous then it's just plain absurd. It means "People (in general) take care of children" or "we take care of children." Healthcare commercials rely on pathos-related rhetoric such as this. You've probably seen similar constructions for English healthcare advertisements. It is analogous to the plural form of what you said - "one takes care of children," with the 'one' being replaced with more than one. I can't make an exact fit in English - "few" and "many" introduce bias into the statement, "they" references something, "ones" is awkward and nonexistent in usage, and "people" can be replaced with "personas." It is hard to translate the general se form into English - the best fit is probably "we", so it's roughly translated as "we take care of children," but again it isn't exact either, since there is probably an equivalent form of that retranslated with the "nosotros" form, like "cuidamos los niños."
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2007
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  7. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

    FraggleRocker: After some more Googling, there really seems to be some ambiguity in the definition of a word in the context of comparing arbitrary languages. The following posted by you is also suggestive of problems defining a word.
    I would tend to call that two words, but then I call housekeeping one word due to there being no interior space character. Perhaps there is a difference between house (space) keeping and housekeeping. Zsa Zsa Gabor once said:
    She obviously was not bragging about her ability to vacuum, dust, mop, clean curtains, et cetera.

    BTW: How does Chinese express the concept of a small dog (EG: A Toy or Miniature Poodle) as contrasted with a large dog (EG: A Saint Bernard or a Mastiff)? Is there another word similar in meaning to Xiao?

    This puppy concept brings up some interesting problems. If Xiao gou (literally small dog) means puppy, how do the Chinese express the notion of a large puppy (A Saint Bernard 2-3 months old) in contrast to a small puppy (any puppy a few days old or a Toy Poodle 2-3 months old)? Perhaps xiao xiao gou for the latter?

    With reasonable definitions, it seems sage to say that English has several times as many words as languages with alphabets and similar grammatical constructs. In comparing English with Chinese, there seems to be some ambiguities and/or problems relating to definitions.

    BTW: I once read an interesting essay explaining why some languages are written left to right, some right to left, and some up to down.
    • Right to left languages were derived from a culture whose first written form was chiseled in stone on Temples, statues, or monuments. It is more efficient for a right handed stone mason to work from right to left (A mistake will not ruin a previously chisled character).

    • Left to right languages were derived from a culture whose first written form was cuneiform (clay inscribed with a pointed tool) or via some pen-like device on some paper-like medium (Right to left would likely smear previously written characters).

    • The top to bottom languages initially used a paintbrush, which encourages downward strokes.
    We might never know the real reasons, but the above seems to be consistent with the known histories of the early cultures which developed a written form of their language.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The reflexive is almost invariably used in Spanish in place of the passive voice. No one every says, El español no está hablado en Alemania. They say No se habla el español en Alemania. The correct idiomatic translation of Aquí se habla español is "Spanish is spoken here." They even extend this to the imperative. I've seen instruction manuals telling me Llenese el tanque, meaning, "The tank must be filled."

    After being away from Aztlán for a few years, the subtleties of idiomatic Spanish are coming back to me. When you actually want a reflexive construction to mean literally the reflexive mode, you use the standard subject-verb word order. If it's a stand-in for the passive voice, you put the subject last and generally omit the article. So "children are taken care of" is indeed se cuidan niños, whereas "children take care of themselves" is "los niños se cuidan. When I first saw the babysitting ad fifty years ago as a first-year student, we were a long way from covering such colloquialisms.

    Yes, alphabets with spaces certainly help us with a definition of a "word." Yet it seems rather arbitrary. Why "watchdog" but "guard dog"?

    But in inflected languages the inflections make the difference. Volkswagen has to be a single word because to express it in two you must use three and move them around, Wagen des Volks. Parasol is one word, otherwise it's lo que para el sol. In English, which has lost most of its inflections, it seems to be a matter of time. I'm sure in a few generations we'll be writing "userfriendly" and "costeffective." English is rapidly evolving into an analytic language like Chinese, and the definition of a word is becoming as fuzzy as in Chinese.
    They can throw in the particle de, which is a degenerate of both dei, a participial formative, and di, a possessive. It is now nothing more than a placeholder for parsing sentences. If the meaning is not obvious from context, you can say xiao de gou to make it clear that you mean a small dog.
    We're getting beyond my modest vocabulary and experience, but I can assure you that a Chinese would have no compunctions about saying da xiao gou and xiao xiao gou for different sized puppies. With only 1600 syllables it's unremarkable for two homonyms to find themselves abutted, so there's not as much resistance to repeating a syllable as there is in our language. Wo de xiao xiao gou is not nearly as precious as "My little little dog."
  9. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    ? Is that true, on this forum?

    I do not know personally, for sure, anyone who has not eaten venison, duck, grouse, goose, squirrel, rabbit, bear, elk, or moose. No doubt there are a couple, among my acquaintances, but it had to have been from choice, not lack of opportunity.

    That leaves possum, coon, gator, gopher, dove, snake, etc etc among the rarer but by no means unknown meals in my neck of the woods.

    But the word is still useless, as far as I can see. "Game animal meat" is not a category, in ordinary sense.

    Is there an issue here, in the existence of crippling words ? Maybe there's an advantage in lacking a word that holds an inherent confusion or invalid categorisation.
  10. Roman Banned Banned


    Those of us that eat game meat call it "gamey". Gameyness depends on how well the animal was killed, cleaned, its diet, and its size. For instance, caribou is more gamey than deer, deer is more gamey than moose and moose is more gamey than musk ox or buffalo, which are more gamey than free range beef, which is more gamey than grain fed beef.
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Most Americans live in urban areas and go their entire lives without eating food they can't buy at Safeway.
    I recall eating venison--fifty years ago when America was more rural. It was okay but nothing I would seek for a second taste. I've had farmed goose and it was tasty enough. I've had farmed duck and rabbit and they were terrible. When I was in Europe the family I stayed with made up a huge meal of game animals and birds that the poppa had killed with his shotgun. Very forgettable. I like pork but I have to practice cognitive dissonance to eat it without remembering how intelligent pigs are and what nice pets the small ones make. Goat meat is tasty too and goats are too cute to eat. It's natural that omnivores are the most intelligent animals because intelligence favors the opportunistic feeder. It's unfortunate that the meat of omnivores seems to be so succulent. There's no way I could bring myself to eat the meat of a raccoon or a bear. I'm not a campaigner against the practice but it's not for me. I predict that within a couple of centuries humans will stop eating the meat of warm-blooded animals, or those who do will be held in the same contempt that now applies to those who eat dog meat.
    Those French, they have as many words for food as the British have for politics and the Americans have for money.
    No, we seem to like them. If we can't find one, we make it up, like "near-miss," "irregardless," or "flammable."
  12. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

    I don't know about other languages, but some have a word for:

    what-d'ya-call-it, whatchmacallit, whatsit, whatyamacallit

    I think we can agree on it that NONE of the above is one word, although they are written as such...
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I for one certainly do not agree! I doubt that the majority of the people who utter the word "whatchamacallit" are even clear on its etymology and could break it down into "what you may call it." The spelling has been conventionalized to obscure it. The Y has disappeared to reflect the strong force of palatalization in American English. I wonder if the British have this word and if so how they spell it, since they certainly could not pronounce it as we do. Perhaps your "whatyamacallit."

    A whatchamacallit is the same thing as a thingamajig or a doohickey or a dingus. A whatchamacallit with a little more technology in it is a gizmo. These are all one word; the fact that one was originally a compound doesn't matter now, just as it does not matter with "birdhouse" or "watchdog."

    I'm sure by the time "zounds" became obsolete, the people who said it had no idea that it was a contraction of "God's wounds."
  14. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

    I was betting on it!

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    Nevertheless it is obvious that those are not new words, but writing into one and shortening a rather lengthy reference. Now consider the Hungarian word of "ize", that has exactly the same meaning. Slightly shorter and a brand new word, not an abbrivation.

    It can also mean a gizmo, can be a verb (usually but not always refering to copulation) and so on. I tried to look up if French or German have similar words, but I couldn't find any....

    Ize: doodad, thingummy, jig, number, gizmo, whatchmacallit
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Where do you buy your dictionaries that they misspell "Whatchamacallit"? Five syllables = 5 vowels.

    There aren't many rules of the English language since we don't have an academy. But one of the few rules is: If there are no spaces, then it is one word.

    You can argue about hyphens, but you can't argue about contiguous letters.

  16. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Only if you find it in a dictionary, which means it's in common use. We get to make up words but they don't count if they don't catch on. You really don't understand how English works.

    I found "whatchamacallit" in two dictionaries. That's why I keep asking you why you write it without the second A. It has a standardized spelling, at least in my country.

    In America, newspapers are generally the arbiters. Their employees are in the language business, so they don't miss much that's going on in the way of word formation. They're pretty liberal about popular culture so they're more likely to legitimize a word a lot of people don't use than to ignore one a lot of people do use. If you look up an etymology, 95 times out of 100 the first recorded use of the word will be a newspaper. I think that's even true in the OED for words coined in the last century.
  18. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

    My point was that there was no English word for that notion, thus they just wrote it into one word and shortened it what people were saying. They could have come up with a completly different and shorter word for that notion, had they made one...

    But anyway, whatever. That is one word....
  19. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Whether we like them or not, there may be an advantage in not having them, no?

    The question for the thread was: are we better off not having words for some things?
    OK, "most". Most Americans go their entire lives without riding a horse or paddling a canoe, as well, but nevertheless English has and keeps words useful among the other tens of millions.
    That may happen, in the common manner of virtues arising from necessities, but it will mark a misfortune IMHO. The disconnection of humans from the non-human world will have become an even wider gulf than it is now.
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Duh? Most vegetarians are motivated by a powerful connection to animals. My wife refuses to consider having a pot-bellied pig in our home because the new connection would make it impossible for her to eat pork. I have to admit I would surely feel the same way.

    The popular bumper sticker from 40 years ago, "Love Animals, Don't Eat Them," argues against your thesis.
  21. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Not an actual, physical connection, however. More of a warm fuzzy feeling of empathy. If you want to know what kinds of places are good for this or that kind of animal, how they llike to spend time, what their capabilities and interests are, what they eat and when, how they raise and care for their young, etc, your local vegetarian restaurant will prove to be a lesser source of contacts and info.

    I've seen vegetarians raise dogs on meat-free diets. I've seen vegetarians try to garden next to a woods without fencing or guard, on the principle that they were willing to share with the animals with which they felt a powerful connection. I've seen vegetarians flip out over june bugs on a door screen, big moths at the window, or bats near ther heads. I've seen them argue with their dogs in English, with subordinate clauses.

    The people who know and love wild ducks eat them, usually. So do the people who know and love deer, bear, squirrels, wild turkeys, and even domestic pigs, cows and chickens.

    Most of the entomologists I know have eaten insects.

    The view of eating as exploitation, as a violent taking with no giving, is an alienated view of the world. And as people stop raising, hunting, and eating animals these animals will vanish from their daily experience, and this alienation will increase. Actual physical connection with animals, the foundation of empathy and knowledge, will be replaced with lives devoid of animals and moved instead by squeamishness at the thought of killing and eating them; personal experience with a view of them owing more to Walt Disney or the Nature Channel on TV.

    Squeamishness is not a virtue.

    For a view of the future "powerful connection" of humans with animals, maybe the movie "The Bear". It took months to train the larger bear against its nature, and the shots had to be carefully set up even then, so that the smaller bear would be safe near it. For most of its viewers, that movie is their knowledge of bears. It is utter fiction, a fable or fantasy with animals as standins for human characters.

    And the animal influence left will be metaphorical, and even they will fade as the metqphors lose their bases in real experience, to get back on topic: where we now use animal metaphors we will have missing words in English.
  22. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    To calque?

    Not necessarily, but this is an interesting way of tackling the issue.

    "To drink" is a verb that can only take a drink as an object to me. Since "he" is not a drink, I can't drink him. "I drank him" sorta sounds like a rather poetic allusion to sex with "him".

    I would disagree. I think we could've been just as flexible even if we had not borrowed extensively from other languages, theoretically. You cite German's being able to coin words for new inventions and concepts with native stock. I don't see it as quite a leap to conclude that any other West Germanic language could pull it off too.

    However, I can concede that borrowing extensively from other languages does offer a very great degree of flexibility.

    Scots makes the same distinctions as Spanish, as far as I know. They use words that are cognate to English "this", "that", and "yon/yonder". English probably used that distinction too once upon a time. I believe traces of the distinction appear in German too, and just as in Scots, the words are cognate: dieser "this", der "the/that" (but das is more recognizable), and jener "that" (but more of a pointing "that" than der is, which is usually just a definite article).

    Wow. That really explains a lot.

    Minor correction: I think the genitive of Volk is Volkes, due to a rule that the genitive of most nouns, probably just strong ones, must be two syllables (except for the ones longer than that, I suppose). Consider: Mannes and Buches, but Vaters and Bruders.

    No. It was whether there's a word to fill in the analogy: eat:feed::drink:__.

    I don't follow. What about vegans that love and own dogs or cats? My aunts are vegetarians, and they have several dogs and cats and love them dearly.

    Being morally opposed to eating meat, recognizing the possibility that eating another animal could possibly be ethically wrong, being intelligent enough that you can conceive this concept in the first place, is not squeamishness any more than nonviolence is acquiescence and cowardice.

    This is a non sequitur to me. Surely there are many things we say whose original contexts became obsolete long ago. For example, "to write": Its original meaning was something like "to tear" (compare with German cognate reißen "to rip/tear"). In Old English, it came to mean something like "to 'scratch/tear' inscriptions (onto a surface) which are a visual representation of speech", probably an allusion to writing on bones, stones, and other things, where you have to scratch and dig in order to make writing. From that, it became simply "to write" as we use it today. The technology needed to print writing was invented (I think) in the mid 1500s or so by Johannes Gutenberg, and before that I think we had been writing on paper for a long time. We have not been writing in the original sense of the term for hundreds of years, yet even today I am "tearing" my thoughts onto my computer screen.

    This probably isn't the best example, as this is properly called a semantic drift. But I don't find it too different, because both my example and your assertion involve a certain manner of speaking no longer being based in real-life experience: in your assertion, experience with animals; in my example, experience with carving your thoughts onto some surface. Contrary to what you think, there is a very real possibility that our animal metaphors will live on for a very very long time, even after we (hypothetically) stop eating meat.
  23. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Not necessarily squeamishness, granted. But quite often squeamishness in fact, we observe. And therefore not necessarily virtue, either, true?

    The ethical arguments against eating animals - not those against various specific manners of raising or killing animals, but those against the eating of animals in itself - have never made much sense to me, and I wonder at their persuasive powers for others. It does not seem to be based in the reasoning.
    They have defied the animal rights arguments against pet ownership, and have thus maintained a rich, but very narrow, relationship with the non-human world.

    When they use words such as pounce, bitch, dog, snap, snarl, growl, paw, catspaw, catlike, puppy, wolf, heel, mangy, kittenish, purr, bark, shed, etc etc, their meanings will have depth and shade not otherwise available.

    Words such as weasel, molt, skunk, game, tree (as a verb), hound (verb), rat, hawk, stoop (verb), rouse, fed up, gripe, bleat, sheepish, gobble, gabble, cluck, duck, cock, mule, bull, calf, hen, peck, henpeck, scratch, fawn, kid, saddle, bridle, owly, brood, hatch, crow (verb), snake, coil, grunt, sow and hog, piggy, etc etc will be inevitably thin and without nuance, even empty.

    And in that short list we notice words now gone missing from English: the original meanings of hawk, crow, gripe, cock, brood, no longer have words in English, at least that I can come up with offhand.

    When or if they try to maintain their animals on a vegan diet, they will prove themselves deranged in a specific way - from a kind of sensory deprivation.

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