December 17, 2006

Solving the world's problems with linguistics

Over at The Austrian Economists, Frederic Sautet suggests a radically expanded role for linguists in global government and industry ("Is language a determinant of reform success?", 12/11/2006):

Last week Graham Scott gave a lecture on public sector management and governance at the Mercatus Center. Dr Scott was the Secretary of the New Zealand Treasury between 1986 and 1993, which was a very important position at the time of the NZ reform process. [...]

During his lecture Graham Scott remarked that the word “accountability” has no translation in many languages. For instance, it has no direct translation in French and Spanish. I presume it is the same with other Latin-based languages, such as Italian or Portuguese. While the word “responsibility” is Latin in its origin (and thus has equivalents in French and Spanish and other languages), it encompasses more than just accountability and, for that reason, is much less precise. In Scott’s view, the concept of accountability is at the core of the public management reforms in New Zealand. But its absence in many other languages may limit (and perhaps has already limited) the adoption of similar reforms elsewhere. Or it may lower the quality of their results. This would show the power of language in shaping institutions.

This is an unusually fine specimen of the "No word for X" fallacy.

Is there any language that is unable to express the concept of the obligation to explain or justify one's actions to someone else? I doubt it.

It's true that the English word accountable usefully connects two sets of concepts -- financial record-keeping and story-telling -- because account in the sense of "financial record" and account in the sense of "story or explanation" are derived from a medieval split in the meaning of words derived from Latin com- "together" + putāre "to reckon", whose derivatives came to mean both "to tell" and "to count".

But this split also exists in Spanish, where contar means both "to count" and "to tell", and where expressions like dar cuenta and rendir cuentas retain or recreate the ambiguity. The French spell compte and conte differently, these days, but they use compte in a generalized sense in lots of expressions: rendre compte for "report" or "explain", se rendre compte for "realize" or "recognize", devoir rendre compte pour for "need to answer for", tenir compte de "take into account", etc.

Does having a single word for "accountability", and using that word frequently, entail implementation of the concept in one's actions? Apparently not.

And if you use a short phrase instead of a single word to refer to a concept, how seriously are you handicapped in understanding or implementation? Well, we Americans have done a decent job in the area of computer science, despite this defect; and the French have not yet managed a successful challenge to Silicon Valley, although they can wield the single word informatique in planning their efforts. Does anyone really think that American efforts in this arena would be more effective if we adopted more widely the one-word neologism informatics?

But wait a minute. Here I am, being all negative about what is, after all, a suggestion that members of my profession ought to be given a central role in addressing the world's problems. Let's try this one again.

Taking it from the top... It's clearly our duty as linguists to help the speakers of Romance languages to share the anglophone world's bounty of accountable institutions, and we here at Language Log are ready to offer consultation services to any well-endowed NGOs who would like to engage this important problem. The first step, clearly, would be a fact-finding tour through Paris, Nice, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, etc.

But this is only the tip of the linguistically-driven-reform iceberg. For example -- speaking of ice -- the concept of "global warming" is named by a short phrase in most of the world's major languages: réchauffement climatique, calentamiento global, riscaldamento globale, aquecimento global, globale Erwärmung, etc. If we follow the thinking of Graham Scott and many others, the key problem here is not climatological or technological or economic -- it's linguistic. So for a suitable fee, Language Log Industries LLC can provide a One World One Word Solution®. This will be a term for "global warming" that can be adopted as a single lexeme in all the world's languages. The result? Analytic consensus and an effective global action plan, outcomes otherwise impossible.

[Hat tip to Joel Thibault]

[Update -- Emmanuel Ruellan writes:

A native speaker of French, I heartily agree with your idea that the French language is by no means inferior to the English one.

As regards the lack of direct translation of “accountability” in French, the sentence “Ils ont des comptes à rendre à (leurs actionnaires | leurs électeurs | whoever one might be accountable to)” springs to my mind. It not a direct translation, but the phrase "comptes à rendre" denotes the obligation to explain or justify one's actions, as you put it, and also suggests the idea of a ledger, therefore it is pretty close to the English term.

Some years ago, my father, whose job consisted in verifying public accounts at local and regional levels, met British counterparts so to compare British and French methods. He gave me a quick account of their findings, and we were both amused by the constant use of the phrase "value for money" by the Brits. To us, it sounded more like shopping at Tesco, or Carrefour for that matter, than public accounting. As far as I remember, French public accountants do not have an equivalent phrase, but it does not prevent them to check that the taxpayer's money is spent according to rules and regulations and to check that it is well spent.

When I was in "Terminale" (that would be the equivalent of the last class of high school in the US, I guess, and that of sixth form in the UK), our philosophy teacher explained us that the language one speaks influences the way one thinks. He did not expand a lot on the subject, nor did he give an explanation. I was rather put off by what I saw as a sloppy discourse, and I found it satisfying, some years later, to discover that most linguists rejected the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least in its strong version.

Shhh, the World Bank is on the line, discussing our project to bring accountability to... well, you know.

And David Fried writes:

The absence-of-a-word-for-accountability meme is constantly raised in Israel re Modern Hebrew.  It was thoroughly dismantled by the truly excellent columnist Philologos in the Forward on October 13 ("Accountability").

Here's a brief quote from this indeed excellent piece:

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it said that Hebrew has no word for “accountability,” the implication being that, if you don’t have a word for something, you can hardly be expected have the thing itself. It’s one of those myths that speakers sometimes have about their own language, which, once established, are nearly impossible to get rid of.

Why a myth? Well, as someone who believes in being familiar with Jewish sources, Yakir Segev should know the little Mishnaic book called Pirkei Avot and commonly referred to as “Ethics of the Fathers” in English. Pirkei Avot is, for good reasons, one of the most studied and most beloved of all Jewish texts, so much so that it is regularly printed in the standard prayer book. And what is the very first sentence in it? In the somewhat dated but still serviceable translation of the British scholar R. Travers Herford, it is:

“Akavia ben Mehalalel said: — Keep in view three things and thou wilt not come into the power of sin. Know whence thou comest and whither thou goest and before whom thou art to give strict account. Whence thou comest, — from a fetid drop. Whither thou goest, — to the place of dust, worms and maggots: and before whom thou art to give strict account, — Before the king of the kings of kings, the Holy one blessed be He.”

“And before whom thou art to give strict account” could also, of course, be translated as, “And before whom you are accountable.” The Hebrew reads: Ve-lifnei mi ata atid li’ten din ve-h.eshbon –”And before whom you are to give a din and a h.eshbon.” Din in classical Hebrew is a “judgment” or “legal process,” and h.eshbon is “account,” “bill,” or “arithmetical sum,” and the combination of the two, din-ve-h.eshbon, means a report in modern Hebrew, as in “book report” or “committee report,” while in its acronymic form of doh. it can also denote a traffic ticket.

Elsewhere in rabbinic Hebrew, to be accountable is shortened to li’ten [or la’tet] et ha-din, “to give a din.” And when converted into the noun “accountability,” it becomes matan din or matan ha-din. It’s a perfectly common expression.

I'm starting to get the idea that "no word for accountability" has become a sort of limited-circulation cliché, recirculated among civil servants and NGO professionals world-wide, in the category of raw materials for speechifying:

For example, this report about consultation of Asian Development Bank officials in Washington, D.C., quotes Robert Salamon, director of the ADB's office of external relations:

One little linguistic sidelight, Salamon mentioned that in most of the countries they have visited there is no comparable word for "accountability."

And this DEN discussion list post notes:

When Homer Sarasohn got to Japan he found there was no equivalent Japanese word for accountability. He told me this in the video I made of him several years ago.

And from a "workshop on the accountability and governance of NGOs":

Cultural implications are important in accountability. For example, there is no word for accountability in Portuguese! Both language and imagery must speak to as many cultures as possible.

And from the Soros organization, this note:

Another piece in the counter-intuitive puzzle is the missing word for "accountability" in the Russian language.

And onward: "The researcher did not find a direct equivalent Bemba (local dialect) word for accountability." "In Italy, they don’t have a word for ‘accountability.’" "The Chinese language does not seem to have an equivalent word for accountability (Minxin. Pei 1999)." Etc.

It seems that this lexical deficit is perceived as a problem worldwide. The secret of America's success? Not its geography, not its people, not its natural resources or its political system -- no, it's this unique lexical invention. You might think that the problem could be solved by simple lexical borrowing (as words like "coffee", "BBQ" and "blog" have been borrowed over the centuries), but the world's NGOs are clearly unable to arrange this without expert guidance. This is a major marketing opportunity for Language Log LLC's soon-to-be-released AccountiLex product line -- I can see the IPO taking shape on the horizon already!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 17, 2006 07:55 AM