12 May 2007

No future tense and twenty words for 'drunk'

Submitted by Karl Hagen
While back-tracking entries in my server log, I ran across the quote that is the title of this post. It comes from Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War. Amazon has "search inside" for this book, so I was able to pull up the context. It's a fantasy, and refers to several invented languages:
She nipped my shoulder violently, the long nails cutting in. I imagined her running and bit my tongue. "Speak Scree!" she demanded. "I speak Awian ... not very good." That would make a mess of my plea, as in Scree there were no words for "sorry" or "forgive." Never trust a language that has no future tense and twenty words for "drunk."
Breathtaking. We have two snowclones and a bit of fuzzy Whorfian reasoning about grammar all packed into two sentences. It's pretty clear what Swainston means to suggest: the people who speak this language lack the concept of apology, live entirely in the present, and booze it up excessively. But the observations don't really establish that. I suppose, by this reasoning we shouldn't trust English either, since it lacks a future tense and has at least twenty words for drunk. Drunk is ambiguous: does the author mean the adjective or the noun? If the adjective, I was able to come up with twenty English words without breaking a sweat:
  1. drunk
  2. inebriated
  3. intoxicated
  4. tipsy
  5. tight
  6. soused
  7. plastered
  8. sloshed
  9. hammered
  10. blotto
  11. pissed
  12. loaded
  13. stinko
  14. stewed
  15. tanked
  16. pickled
  17. sauced
  18. boozy
  19. smashed
  20. paralytic
And that barely scratches the surface. I didn't even try to count phrasal equivalents like three sheets to the wind, which would surely extend the list to hundreds of entries. My imagination didn't quite stretch to as many nouns, but again, it didn't take me long to come up with these:
  1. drunk
  2. drunkard
  3. sot
  4. lush
  5. wino
  6. boozer
  7. alcoholic
  8. inebriate
  9. tippler
  10. boozehound
  11. rummy
  12. souse
I'd be willing to bet one could compile a similarly large list for a lot of other languages. And many also lack a future tense, Hungarian, Japanese, and all the Germanic languages, for example. And many others don't mark for tense at all (for example, Malay). The fact that English lacks a future tense clearly doesn't mean we have no way of discussing future time. And I'm not sure that English-speaking cultures are unusually inebriated. If, as I suspect, most alcohol-consuming cultures have a similarly large vocabulary for inebriation, a language with twenty words for the state would hardly be unusual. I have no idea how many terms there are in Arabic, which might be fewer, given Islam's disapproval of alcohol (anyone know?). But as Geoff Pullum has been at pains to point out, a particular count of words for a concept would actually tell us virtually nothing about the conceptual system of the users of that language. The meme of a language lacking a word for Y is the flip side of the same coin as the "X words for Y" snowclone, where X, usually a large number, goes to zero. It is equally suspect, especially as most of these lexical gaps can be expressed by paraphrase. In other words, there's nothing magical about having a single word to express a concept as long as it can be communicated. Arguably, some cultures have particular value systems that make it difficult or impossible to express certain concepts—the case of Pirahã comes to mind—but that's not the same as saying "there's no word for X." To say that the concept X cannot be expressed is a much stronger claim, and if true (which it usually is not), a more interesting one. Swainton, in short, has given us three linguistic fallacies for the price of one.