October 04, 2006

Parts of a fish head: let me count the ways

Jan Freeman supplies a quote from an article in the Scottish Sunday Herald about TV quizmaster Magnus Magnusson, who is claimed to have a "genuine, 100% authentic, forgery-free Icelandic heritage", and to have grown up speaking Icelandic in Scotland:

He has a great love of the Icelandic language — there are, he says, 140 words for parts of a cod head in Icelandic, most of which are untranslatable.

How convenient that most of them are untranslatable so that there is no way we can confirm that they do indeed unambiguously denote parts of the head of the relevant fish species, or indeed, that they have meanings at all. How strange that a man should have a "great love" for a language simply on grounds of the size of its fish-head-part vocabulary. Does the head of a fish even have 140 parts, clearly recognizable without microichthyological analysis, that might need names? Maybe so. Who knows. But most of the public will probably find Magnusson's observation fascinating whether there are such fishy head parts or not. I hope they will also be fascinated to learn that I speak a language with at least 140 words — most of them unprintable — for gullible dimwits who propagate exotic but unchecked lexicographical traveller's tales.

[Update added October 5] But let me be serious about this topic for a moment or two. Gunnar Hrafn Hrafnbjargarson (he's an Icelandic researcher at the Institute for Linguistics at the University of Tromsö in Norway, and he admits that he found the above remarks "a bit annoying, to put it mildly"), has informed me that some Icelandic dictionaries do indeed have diagrams of the head of a cod, and list words denoting various parts. It is interesting, though, that these words all seem to be perfectly ordinary Icelandic words with meanings like "hen", "cow", "child", "bell", "comb", "shield", and so on. What is going on is that they are used metaphorically in this context to make a technical-term inventory of anatomical names for particular cod head parts: a certain muscle on the inside of the skull behind the ear is called the hen; the muscle that goes from above the eye towards the back of the head is called the child; there is a bone in the middle of the head below the eye that is called the shield; there is a small muscle by the eye that is called the bell; there is a muscle in the lower part of the upper jaw that is called the apron; and so on.

There do not seem to be as many as 140 of these words; but there may be as many as 100. More importantly, though, all the words are readily translatable into English. Almost certainly, what Magnusson meant by calling them "untranslatable" was that they did not have exactly synonymous single-lexeme counterparts in English. But that is really a very different matter.

What annoys me about lexicographical traveller's tales of the "many-words-for-X" and "no-word-for-Y" varieties (and there have been so many more, about the Eskimos, the Irish, and so on) is seeing fanciful (and often frankly incredible) claims of exoticism for some alien culture being supported through fraud and inaccuracy and presented to an audience that has no prospect of being able to check up on them. Natural languages are quite interesting enough. We don't need to make stuff up.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 4, 2006 07:45 PM