September 28, 2005

Tingo and other lingo

[Guest post by Benjamin Zimmer]

A burgeoning new field in pop linguistics consists of gathering together words and phrases in the world's languages that are deemed "untranslatable" into English (or at least lack a tidy lexical translation-equivalent). Howard Rheingold (of Virtual Community and Smart Mobs fame) led the way with his 1988 book, They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases (republished by Sarabande Books in 2000). Last year saw the publication of Christopher J. Moore's In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World. Now comes the latest entry, The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot De Boinod.

I haven't seen de Boinod's book yet, but a BBC article gives some examples that are typical of the genre:

While English speakers have to describe the action of laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts (hardly an economical phrase), the Japanese have the much more efficient expression: katahara itai.

Of course, the English language has borrowed words for centuries. Khaki and croissant are cases in point.

So perhaps it's time to be thinking about adding others to the lexicon. Malay, for instance, has gigi rongak - the space between the teeth. The Japanese have bakku-shan - a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. Then there's a nakkele - a man who licks whatever the food has been served on (from Tulu, India).

Tingo, we are told, is a word from the Pascuense language of Easter Island meaning "to borrow objects from a friend's house, one by one, until there's nothing left." That definition appears to be borrowed wholesale from de Boinod's predecessor, Howard Rheingold.

De Boinod is no linguist (he's a researcher for the BBC comedy quiz show QI), but he claims to have read "over 280 dictionaries" and "140 websites" (or, according to his publisher's site, "approximately 220 dictionaries" and "150 websites" — take your pick). It's safe to assume that the fact-checking for such books is rather minimal — if a website says it, it must be true, right? One of the examples provided in the BBC article is in a language I'm familiar with: Malay/Indonesian. Does gigi rongak mean "the space between the teeth" in Malay? Well, not exactly. Gigi means "tooth" or "teeth," and rongak means "discontinuous, gapped." So gigi rongak would simply translate as "gapped teeth," or, if used attributively, "gap-toothed." Looks like this particular compound phrase isn't so "extraordinary" after all, since no doubt countless languages have rather unremarkable equivalents for gap-toothed. My guess is that de Boinod relied on an online Malay-English Dictionary that inaccurately translates gigi rongak as "gap between teeth."

As an aside, the reliance on sketchy online dictionaries and wordlists can yield unintentionally humorous results. Take, for instance, the Maserati Kubang. Unveiled in 2003, this "concept car" is supposedly named after "a wind over Java." (Maserati has a tradition of naming cars after exotic-sounding winds.) Close, but no cigar — the actual word is kumbang, not kubang. Angin kumbang literally means "bumblebee wind" in Javanese and Indonesian, and it refers to a very dry south to southwesterly wind that blows into the port of Cirebon on the north coast of Java. But this got mangled on various websites listing winds of the world (e.g., here, here, and here), and kumbang was changed to kubang. What does kubang mean in Indonesian? "Mudhole, mud puddle, quagmire." Probably not the image Maserati was going for!

Books like de Boinod's that gather linguistic tidbits from all over should obviously be taken with a truckload of salt. Language Hat has already noted an utterly spurious item circulated by Christopher J. Moore in his book In Other Words. William Safire, in an On Language column praising Moore's book, cites the example of razbliuto, supposedly meaning "a feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but no longer feels the same way about." But there's no such word! Turns out Moore got this from Rheingold's They Have a Word for It, who in turn got it from J. Bryan III's 1986 book Hodgepodge. Language Hat eventually tracked down the source of the razbliuto myth: an episode of the 1960s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., incredibly enough. (To his credit, Safire later corrected himself about razbliuto after receiving "a dozen letters from others who insist that the word does not exist.")

The multitudinous errors in such books should not be surprising; as Mark Liberman has reminded us, when a factoid about language is attractive enough, "the linguistic truth of the matter is beside the point." And these books clearly rely on the sort of naive Whorfianism that informs many of the language factoids catalogued here in the past (Inuit languages have many words for snow, Moken has no words for the passage of time, etc.). De Boinod proffers the well-worn "Whorf Lite" argument in the BBC article:

He is also convinced that a country's dictionary says more about a culture than a guide book. Hawaiians, for instance, have 108 words for sweet potato, 65 for fishing nets - and 47 for banana.

I don't know much about the Hawaiian ethnoclassification of sweet potatoes, fishing nets, or bananas, but my guess is that these "words" are (like Inuit "words" for snow) mostly hyponymic compounds, where a general term is modified by one or more additional morphemes to denote something more specific (e.g., "maple tree," "tricolored cat ," etc.). What does it tell us about Hawaiian culture that the language has many such terms for bananas? Not a whole lot, other than that Hawaiians (like other Pacific islanders) are familiar with far more banana varieties than the boring Cavendish that most mainlanders put on their cereal.

It is of course unfair to prejudge de Boinod's book based solely on early press accounts. (One positive sign is that the book apparently includes "a frank discussion of exactly how many 'Eskimo' terms there are for snow.") I'll leave it to experts of other languages to pick apart de Boinod's research, and will just close with another rather inaccurate example that appears in articles about the book in The Telegraph, The Scotsman, and The Daily Record. The articles claim that neko-neko is an Indonesian term for "a person who has a creative idea that only makes things worse." Néko-néko, a Javanese colloquialism borrowed into Indonesian, is not a noun referring to a person but rather a predicative verb or adjective best translated as "doing all sorts of things unnecessarily" or perhaps "sticking one's nose where it doesn't belong." Some linguists might find that an apt description for popular misrepresentations of the world's languages and their lexicons.

[Update: Karen Davis points out that English arguably does have an efficient expression for "the action of laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts", namely side-splitting, which weighs in at three syllables and ten phonemes, compared to six syllables and twelve phonemes for Japanese katahara itai (which appears to mean, compositionally, "one side painful"). ]

[Update #2: Bruno van Wayenburg writes:

I'm a regular Lang Log reader from the Netherlands, who read Benjamin Zimmer's log and some reviews about De Boinod's book. I was sort of amused to read about the supposed Dutch word for stone skimming, 'plimpplampplettere', in De Boinod's book

As a native speaker I have never encountered the word, and neither have some linguage keen friends, either for skimming stones or anything else (we say, rather prosaically 'keilen' of 'stenen keilen'). Neither is it in the authoritative Van Dale dictionary, and a google search for it turns up 12 hits, all in English and about De Boinods book (even when you search for Dutch-language pages only). It doesn't even have the verb ending -en.

To me, it sounds like a jocular incrowd word invented at a session of stone skimming. ('Kletteren', pronounced 'klettere', means 'falling violently or noisily' (this one should be in the book, especially as it means 'to climb' in German). 'Pim pam pet' is a popular children's game, and the term may convey a sense of repetition, while 'plons' is the sound of something falling into water. So there you have some associations and onomatopoeiea which could explain this concoction. But surely very few Dutch would mean what you are talking about if you were to use plimpplampplettere out of the blue.

After having turned in this false entry, I can however report that 'uitwaaien' is a genuine Dutch word, regularly used as well as executed in the meaning that De Boinod gives, and it's quite wonderful that it has the power to amaze foreigners.

It would be interesting to keep score, and see what proportion of De Boinod's entries are bogus. About half, judging from the returns so far.]

[Update #3: Matt T. at No-sword has blogged about the Japanese examples:

Another day, another article about those wacky words that other languages have!
While English speakers have to describe the action of laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts (hardly an economical phrase), the Japanese have the much more efficient expression: katahara itai.
The vast majority of the "efficiency" there is packed into the word katahara (片腹), meaning "one side of your abdomen", although really "belly" would be more natural than abdomen, but in any case, is this really more efficient than "side-splitting"? I mean, the phrases are directly comparable in terms of both literal meaning and subsequent hyperbolic devaluation, and I count three syllables in "side-splitting", and at least twice as many in katahara itai.
(Incidentally, this phrase is probably a corruption of katawara itai (傍ら痛い), "beside-pain", which is applied to a person or circumstance so shameful or pitiful that it hurts to be near him, her or it. Which isn't really relevant to how it's used today, but is kind of interesting.)
Moving on...
The Japanese have bakku-shan - a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.
True, but when you consider that this word (arguably pair of words) is simply a combination of English back and German schoen, "beautiful", it's not very good evidence for the idea that English isn't kooky enough.
I suppose you could argue that English speakers lack the creativity to put their words together in kooky ways like that, but come on -- even my relatively sheltered life has allowed me to hear several remarkably creative, although often quite unkind, 100% English expressions for people who are attractive from behind but not before. If there's one thing English doesn't lack, it's insults.

Hmm. Maybe Tingo's bogosity factor is higher than 50%.]

[Update #4: Tom Rossen observes that English actually has a one-syllable word for something that's so funny that laughing at it produces a one-sided pain in the abdomen, as in this quote:

(link) As for Tom Hewitt, his Tristan Tzara exuberance should be bottled for commercial consumption. (Hewitt speaks what's supposed to be French with a Romanian accent, and he's a stitch....)

where a stitch is an allusion to the expression "I laughed so hard, I got a stitch in my side." Indeed. ]

[Lots of comments at metafilter, including several more debunkings. More yet on this message board, including the observation that Russian koshatnik doesn't really mean "seller of dead cats": its most straightforward translation would be "cat person" or "cat fancier", as in this dictionary entry. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 28, 2005 12:10 AM