March 12, 2005

No word for sex

Novelist Frank Delaney was on NPR's Weekend Edition today, babbling to Scott Simon about the Irish and how different their world view is from everyone else. We Irish, he explained, have no word for yes in our language, and no word for no. And, he added, "no word for sex! But we're not going to get into that." Not him, maybe, but Language Log is not afraid to get into sex. I immediately suspected that Delaney was gilding the lily, and that this notion — a language with no word for the absolute best way to have fun that does not involve laughing — would turn out to be utter nonsense. I therefore turned, as I have before, to one of the foremost modern Irish specialists in the world, my colleague at UC Santa Cruz, Jim McCloskey. Could it be true, really, I asked him, that Irish has no word for sex?

He sighed the deep sigh of a man who often has to listen to people talking ignorant nonsense about a dying language that he loves and has studied for forty years. And he remarked that FrankDelaney couldn't have spent much time around people who actually speak the language. And he then listed the first few Irish terms for various kinds of sex and sexual activities that came to his mind:

ag bualadh leathair
ag déanamh pite boid
ag déanamh pís ghlaice
ag ealáin
an cleas a dhéanamh
craiceann a bhualadh
craiceann a dhéanamh
cuid a dhéanamh de

(I dare not tell you what these mean, because of FCC regulations. I've put them in alphabetical order. Some dictionaries fail to list some of them, but all are in use in the native-speaker community. Two of the terms refer to masturbation, but hey, as Woody Allen said, that's sex with someone you love. Notice that three of the terms are single words.)

So what on earth can Frank Delaney be thinking of? Why do people say these things about languages they purport to care about, and do absolutely nothing to check up on whether the things they are saying are even remotely close to the truth? Why is everyone so given to bullshitting about language and thought, even about the language of their own countrymen?

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. Anyone want to suggest that the Chinese have exactly the same cultural propensities and outlook on life as the Irish? More bullshit about language and thought.

Here's 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.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 12, 2005 08:39 PM