I’d like to take a moment to propose a couple more counterexamples to the Whorfian canard about language X having no word for Y. I know, I know. This has been thoroughly covered elsewhere and anyway couldn’t you find a better way to kill those fish than shooting them–I’m afraid you’ll damage my barrel. But why have a blog if you can’t use it to get mildly novel ideas of your chest?
Popularly, the word is the nexus of all meaning, but us linguists know that meaning can reside in both larger and smaller structures. In Portugese you can rattle off “Talvez eu coma uma banana,” while English speakers must slog all the way through “Maybe I can eat a banana,” using the whole modal verb “can” to convey the same whiff of irrealis as the lithe little penknife of the Portugese subjunctive morpheme –a. Anyone care to speculate as to what edge Brazilians have over Australians when it comes to dealing with hypothetical situations?
Going the other direction, we can say, sure there is no single word in language X for concept Y, and that’s why language X has phrases. For example, in English we have no single word for the concept “tennis skirt”, but we do have two completely unrelated words–“tennis” and “skirt”. Put them together and voilà. (Or, as we say here in America, there you go!)
Perhaps the best known counterexample to Whorfianism comes from that most linguistically sophisticated of all art forms, standup comedy. In the late 1980s, the comedian Rich Hall had a bit called Snigglets, which were words that weren’t in the dictionary but should be. Example:
lactomangulation (n): Manhandling the “open here” spout on a milk container so badly that one has to resort to the “illegal” side.
Hall did this bit on stage, on Letterman, and in books, one of which I owned when I was eleven or so. It works by provoking a-ha moments simultaneously on morphological and semantic levels. “Lactomangulation” is funny both because it’s made up of the recognizable component parts “lacto” and “mangle”, and because we’ve all done that. My snigglet is “Preenager”–a ten year-old who has already adopted the petulant self-regard of someone three years older. You heard it here first.
Snigglets work precisely because English has no word for X. Compositionality is the pivot for laughter. We do not live in the prison house of our words. On the contrary, language gives us the tools to improvise.