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August 19, 2015



We do have words that deal with the left right problem, albeit in a specialised sphere - cricket, where legside and offside deal not just with which end you're looking from, but whether the batsman is left or right handed.


Geoffrey Pullum and others at language log have a running series on "no word for x" eg

"...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 speakers of language L have no way to express concept C, then you'll almost never never lose by betting against them.)"

And here;'s a complete list of "no word for x". (Hint, there usually is.)


Interesting post.

Sort of related...

I'm pretty sure that I sometimes think something before I can find the words to express it (even internally). If it's a difficult thought, I quite often don't bother finding them at all.

That's not to say the un-'spoken' argument isn't constrained by my language. But maybe it suggests there's more levels to Chris's point.

Language can affect our ability to express thoughts - which is what's going on with Chris's dancing - and it can also affect what we thoughts have in the first place. The two things are different.

Dave Timoney

At least you didn't mention the many Eskimo words for snow.


Great stuff! Although there is also an opposite tendency to the individualistic one, that is just as damaging. We say that such and such is true, but really it is a mistake to talk in terms of a view from nowhere. Actually, it is held to be true by such and such a group of people at such and such a time.

Steven Clarke

This recalls Malcolm Gladwell's argument in 'Outliers' that Chinese children are better at Maths because the words for numbers are shorter, and better match the structure of the numbers.

Matt Moore

"port and starboard"

Chris Wilson

How about port and starboard?


This is a key reason for everyone to take the time to learn something of other languages. Thought is so completely different to the unwieldy concept of consecutive words in whatever language, but until you learn that you can say things in a subtly different but very similar way in another language that mismatch is much harder to understand.
You recommendation for humility in use of language and thought is spot on too.

Dave Timoney

It is less the case that language and culture impose constraints and more that "we" (vainly) seek to constrain language and culture, limiting meanings and decrying non-standard expressions. Actual language is ill-disciplined. The idea that a vocabulary is lacking, that words are rationed, goes back to the elitist belief that there is a right language defined by the right sort. The roots of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis lie in nationalism and its baleful legacy inlcudes reactionary grammar pedants like Michael Gove and Toby Young.

You suggest that the bitterness of the culture wars partly arises because "different cultures have different standards of what matters", but it would be equally true to say that they have different interpretations of key concepts and words, such as liberty or debt, which they have imposed in support of those standards, and that this is what leads to incomprehension. In other words, the problem is not the inadequacy of language but its plasticity.

To get practical for a moment, you could simply agree new orientation terms with your dancing partners, or adopt the suggested port and starboard (once you agree who is bow and stern), but you'll not get very far if your concept of dance is Fred Astaire and hers is Pina Bausch (I'm assuming it's a she, otherwise the eye-candy would be wholly gratuitous).


"One reason why culture wars are so bitter in religion or even in macroeconomics is that different cultures have different standards of what matters - and the more bone-headed partisans don't appreciate this."

Perhaps this is why importing shedloads of Islamoloons isn't such a great idea ;)


"Perhaps this is why importing shedloads of Islamoloons isn't such a great idea ;)"

Question for Nick Cohen and his ilk, what is the biggest problem today, anti Semitism or Islamophobia?

Incidentally, wont holding a compass interfere with the dancing?


for dancing what you want are clockwise and anti-clockwise, which are the same for both waltzers.

you could even say 'come-bye' and 'away'


You could just learn the moves, make the mistakes and practice until you get it right. Then hope that repetition improves the speed at which you improve.

If this doesn't happen there comes the point when you have to ask yourself, am I cut out to be a good dancer?

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