No fair in Bulgarian: Universals of language and particulars of culture

A rather silly comment in the Christian Science Monitor about the consequences of the supposed lack of the word for 'integrity' in Bulgarian on the Bulgarian economy recently drew the ire of Mark Lieberman on the Language Log: 

"As the economy worsened here, so, too, did corruption, says John Heck, who runs an EU-funded, anticorruption project in Sofia. The problems are ingrained deeply into modern Bulgarian society, he says, "Integrity – if you look in the Bulgarian dictionary, you won't find the term."  Michael J. Jordan, "Corruption in Bulgaria tests EU expansion", Christian Science Monitor, 12/31/2008

Lieberman is right to ridicule the quote but too blithe about generalising this common trope into a rule (see below in my emphasis):

Language Log » No word for integrity? Although I don't know any Bulgarian, I disbelieve Mr. Heck on general principles: [A] when someone makes a sociological point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong. (And if they say or imply that [B] speakers of language L have no way to express concept C, then you'll almost never never lose by betting against them.)

As for assertions in the other direction, that [C] you can learn something important about society S by observing that they have a word W for the esoteric concept E, you can safely make book against those claims as well. This is somewhat less certain — there are plenty of curious concepts out there, and sometimes one of them is associated with a mono-morphemic word in one language or another. But the level of, well, integrity among those who invent such claims is on average extremely low, and so the chances are very good that any particular example belongs to the category of assertion to which philosophers assign the technical term "bullshit".

Yes, most of the 'sociological' assertions he mentions are indeed technically 'bullshit' (cf. claim marked as [A] above) but the the second two of the three claims he makes about the tendency of languages to not have equivalent concepts as a consequence of their cultural practices are just plain wrong. In fact, I would say, a statement in the form of 'word X in language Z has no direct equivalent in language Y that would cover its whole range of meanings and not add any of its own' is true about many if not most lexical units available to given two languages (cf. claim marked by me as [B] above). We don't need to look at abstract concepts like 'integrity', we run into trouble with seemingly inocuous words like 'go' and 'bread'. These differences derive from usage which is embedded in the linguistic and cultural practices of a given speech community and therefore by definition tell us something about  'society S'  (cf. claim marked by me as [C] above).

What we will rightly quible over is the word 'important' in Lieberman's claim [C]. If we try to make claims about the 'nature' of a culture based on individual items in its lexical inventory, then Lieberman's right. But that is more the consequence of the general unreliability of 'essentialist' claims about cultures and societies. On the other hand, it would be wrong, to deny that we can learn something significant about the cultural practices (patterns of interaction) of a particular speech community from an in-depth analysis of the availability of certain lexical items. Or conversely, it is wrong to claim, that the availability of a particular lexical item has no effect on the patterns of cultural practice in two cultures. Here are a few examples from Czech and English:

1. The case of prozvonit. 'Prozvonit [acc.]' is a new Czech verb that means 'to call somebody on their mobile telephone with the intention of notifying them of a [sometimes tacitly] prearranged signal without the expectation that the call will be answered for the purposes of saving money'. I know that English doesn't have the equivalent word for this practice because I looked. That doesn't mean that the practice is unknown or unrecognisable in the English-speaking word but it does seem to have an effect on the predominance of this behavior. For instance, taxi companies in my current of home town of Norwich do this when the car you ordered is in front of your house. But friends and family in the same town don't seem to make use of this practice to the same extent. Again, I know this simply by trying to make these arrangements myself and observing others' usage of their phones in their interactions. Basically, having an equivalent of 'prozvonit' in English would have been handy on numerous occasions and the shape of interactions in the English-speaking word would probably be different if such a word were available.  (Note 1: By the way, the analysis of the semantics of the prefix 'pro' is fascinating in itself. Note 2: It's conceivable that there are English speaking communities that has a lexical item or a phrase for 'prozvonit', I just haven't found them.)

But what conclusions can we draw from the above? Surprisingly little. The first obvious conclusion to draw is that the reason that this word has emerged in Czech and not in English is due to the differential in income levels between the two worlds. And there is certainly something to that. The desire to save money is a part of the semantic frame of 'prozvonit'. But there are certainly many people (particularly teenagers) in the English speaking word that have the same motivation and yet, as far as I can tell, neither the practice nor the vocabulary have developed to the same extent among economically deprived English-speaking communities of practice. And the same is the case of cultures and languages from countries that are worse off than the Czechs. During my time in Albania, I observed a number of cultural patterns of practice surrounding mobile phone use designed to save money but my informants were unable to find the equivalent of 'prozvonit'. The related practice existed (just like in the English speaking world) but because there was no easy way to two people to pre-arrange this behavior, it seemed less ubiquitous (this is something that it should be possible to test empirically, and I'm ready to be corrected).

In conclusion, we can make almost no deterministic claims about cultural practice based simply on the analysis of the lexical inventory but such analysis can be used to reveal something of interest about these practices when done in conjunction with the proper ethnography.

2. The case of 'cash'. My second example concerns the word 'cash' as used by Czech bankers. Post 1989, international banking practices made their way into the Czech financial sector with the predictable influx of new loan words and the equally predictable outcries of purists over the corruption of the Czech language. While Czech has long had the equivalent of 'cheque' in the form of the loan-word 'šek', the equivalent of 'cash' was the Czech word 'hotovost' (etymologically related to the English colloquialism 'readies' but without the dialectal and register implications). Yet, while the Czech financial speech community left the word 'šek' alone (partly due to the relative obscurity of 'cheque' use by Czechs), it felt the need to replace 'hotovost' with 'cash'. The reason lies in the essential collocative non-equivalence of 'cash' and 'hotovost' despite their superficial similarity. Hotovost simply does not work in the context of 'cash flow' (or so the financial experts claim), 'cash machine' or many others such as 'cash in'. On the other hand, it does seem to work in contexts like 'cash poor' or in a question of 'would you like check or cash'. But because the bankers perfer a single lexical item for convenience and a loan word for prestige, and there was a period of time when the word 'cash' or 'keš' was commonly used by all bankers to such an extent that it was mocked in a popular film. I have a feeling that things have since changed but because I don't live in the Czech Republic at the moment, I don't have the data.

So again, the cultural claims that can be made based on lexical equivalence are modest but they are there and they are not uninteresting.

3. The curious case of 'danger', 'stomach' and the claim that wouldn't. Finally, I have two instances where a cultural claim seems to be in the offing but isn't. First, 'danger' and 'safety'. As you see, English has two different, unrelated lexical items for the two antonyms. Czech has near perfect equivalents in 'bezpečí' and 'nebezpečí' as does Russian in 'opasnost' and 'bezopasnost'. But what is different is that both Czech and Russian use the negation of one of the items to create the antonym. But what is even more interesting is that both use a different word as the unmarked default. So while Czech has 'safety' and 'nosafety', Russian has 'danger' and 'withoutdanger'. I find this fascinating but try as I might, I cannot find any conclusion that could be made about the cultural differences in the views of danger and safety.

The second comparative example comes with a built in claim that is probably unwarranted. It is the difference between the Czech and Russian words for 'life', 'stomach', and 'thirst'. Here's the table that shows the etymological links:

  Czech Russian
život zhizn
stomach (belly)   zhivot
thirst žízeň  

Now, the conclusion seems to be obvious: Russians like to drink and therefore thirst equates life whereas Czechs like to eat, and therefore stomach equals life. This conforms seductively to the cultural stereotypes but any such conclusion is simply not warranted. Or rather, it is obvious that life and thirst and stomach are related but the fact that one culture chose one metaphorical route into word formation over the other means absolutely nothing. It would be nice and easy for social scientists if that were the case but it sadly isn't so. If it were, what conclusion could we draw from the fact that the Russian word 'chyorstvyj' means 'stale' while the Czech word 'čerstvý' means 'fresh' or that 'pakhnut' in Russian means to smell pleasantly while 'páchnout' in Czech means smell unpleasantly?

So finally, was Lieberman right or wrong? He was fully right to make fun of the Christian Science Monitor and mostly right about the lack of solidity in the sociolinguistic claims. But he was wrong about claiming the ubiquity of lexical equivalence. In fact, true lexical equivalence across languages is rather rare and speech communities in contact have a whole array of cultural and linguistic devices for dealing with this fact. And this is a worthwhile thing to learn. This is not a claim of strong linguistic relativity. For instance, there's no way I can express the sentence 'when you come home, the chicken will have been cooking for an hour' in Czech but a Czech person can certainly understand the configuration of events and will use other ways of describing it when necessary (as will the happless translator). But the lack of the future perfect in Czech makes a difference in what aspects (pun intended) of situations people talk about. And that, again, is not insignificant.

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