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And What Does "Blarney" Mean, Again?

Geoff Pullum has some advice:
Whenever you hear someone starting to say something that begins with "The X have no word for Y", or "The X have N different words for Y", never listen to them, and always check your wallet to make sure it's still there.

We're told often enough that the Eskimo have "x [where x varies from 30 to 1,000,000] words for snow". It's nonsense, of course -- they actually have quite a bit fewer than we do. I can thank an old anthro prof for clueing me in on that myth, but Anthony C. Woodbury back in 1991 compiled a list of English and Yupik lexemes for "snow" for an old-school mailint list. But it just won't go away. It's another aspect of that idea that some peoples really do think differently.

Pullum was moved to comment by a blarney-rich (which is to say, charming and engaging) interview with Irish novelist Frank Delaney on WeSat. The Irish are "devious", Delaney says, because they've made do without words for ideas like "yes", "no", and "sex". After putting paid to the issue of words for sex, Pullum goes on to make this fascinating observation about how the Irish say "yes" and "no":

The story about Irish lacking particles meaning "yes" and "no" is true, by the way. But it has nothing to do with the Irish mind or spirit or way of looking at the world or the notion of neither agreeing nor disagreeing. In Irish you repeat the verb of someone's clause to agree with it (as if someone said "Got milk?" and the way you gave an affirmative response was to say "Got"), and you repeat their verb with the negation particle in front to deny it ("Not got"). But the same is true of Chinese.

Which is not to say that there aren't interesting cultural consequences related to that particular characteristic of the Irish language. Certainly they could have said 'yes' or 'no'; no language would last long without a simple and straightforward way of doing so, and in any case the Irish construction is somwhat analogous to the German constructs for negation. In German, the word for "not" (as in "not green") is the same as the word for "nothing": nicht. But I've yet to hear anyone suggest this colors the German way of thought. I submit that the reason is more or less frank ethnocentrism, again. (And in fact have never heard a German-speaker make an error in speaking English that would suggest any confusion on the issue.)

I'm reliably informed, for example, that it's regarded as being in very bad form to "say no" (i.e., to refuse to do something) in Japanese. Certainly they have a way of doing it; but it's not something that polite people observing the pretense of social equality will easily do. Instead, you find indirect ways of expressing refusal. The subject came up with regard to Japanese marketing campaigns by a large, Rochester-based "document company" which used far too assertive language forms. But this is not so much a matter of language per say as of its usage in a cultural context. A language can be used, generally, to express any number of different ideas; in a cultural context, though, it may not be very good for expressing some of them.

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