A very tired old rhetorical trope (among journalists, and by extension the general public) is the idea that “language X has no words for Y,” thereby inferring some cultural or intellectual value judgement on language X’s speaker population. But all sufficiently sophisticated cultures will have ways of expressing similar sentiments, even if they don’t have a one-to-one and onto mapping of vocabulary. So while I certainly wouldn’t dare to make value judgements on languages for lacking the distinction between two related English words, it does get frustrating sometimes, when I have to go through the same spiel again and again, whenever I meet yet another speaker of language X.

An interesting example, is one that arose between myself, and a dear friend in Germany. Now, as most of you may know, German has grammatical gender, which is to say that every noun is declined as either being masculine, feminine, neuter, or plural. However, German also doesn’t have a separate word to distinct between the English senses of “gender” and “sex,” which led to the humorous exchange between us, whereby I agreed that neuter dative cell numbers are “sexy”. Still, in this case, it’s an innocent lexical error, and not one that would really cause confusion. In Gender Studies, however, as a field of psychology, such a distinction can be extremely crucial. …And from my less-than-thorough browse on the German Wikipedia page for “sex and gender distinction,” it seems that at least in the field of Gender Studies, the English word “Gender” has been imported to force that distinction between biological sex, and social/personal gender.

That kind of error, at least, doesn’t really faze me. One that gets me, however is the term “Linguistics” in Japanese and Chinese, which is more-or-less “language-ology” (言語学). Part of it is probably to do with my private wish to make the languages more similar, if only to remove the century-old veneer of exoticism. Sure, they’re still half-way around the world, and still outside of the EU, but c’mon! We’ve been trading/stealing from them for over 200 years! It really riles me up whenever I meet a sino- or japanophile, who’s clearly fallen in love with the romanticism of the misty dynastic medieval past of East Asia, and whose sole interest in befriending me, is to learn pickup lines in Japanese (only to inevitably use them on Chinese girls in Toronto). It’s all sorts of racism that I abhor. But I digress.

Whenever I’m in a situation meeting new Japanese people (which is almost every Saturday, since I’m part of a language exchange club), we’ll inevitably reach the conversation topic of “hobbies and interests,” and I will naturally mention Linguistics (言語学). And they will reply, “so how many languages can you speak?”

To be fair, the same reaction is elicited from English-speakers, so it’s really just an extension of the same sort of ignorance for the field. However, at least in English, we’ve finessed the language enough to make a sort of distinction between the adjectives “linguistic” and “lingual,” even if they both ostensibly share the same cognate/etymology. And truthfully, the contextual distinction exists in Japanese as well, because they also have universities that have 言語学 departments, that also study things like corpus linguistics, and phonology, and pragmatics, and all that fun stuff that Linguistics students would study on this side of the sandbox/pond. Things linguistic would be 言語学的 or 言語学の, and lingual things would be 言語の or 語学的。

So all in all, there’s not really a lexical issue, but more of an awareness issue of the speakers. Such is the fascinating canvass of our myriad tongues. So keep ’em wagging, and we’ll all be cunning linguists. 🙂