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July 22, 2011

What Are Words Worth?

What Are Words Worth?

Posted by JP 


`Ilunga’ means a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. That’s a word I’ve just imported into English from Tshiluba.  A bunch of linguists voted it the world’s hardest word to translate. Then they gave us a translation.  I’m so happy to have this word.  It allows me to think thoughts that I couldn’t think before.  I wonder if Obama is basically an ilunga.  My wife is definitely not an ilunga.  She’s all over me after my first abuse.

 I don’t know about you, but I do most of my thinking in words.  If I don’t have the words, how can I have the thoughts?  And if you can’t have the thoughts, you can’t make plans.  Tonight I’m going to do some schoogling.  Until I learned the word, I couldn’t have had that plan.

While  schoogling sounds like something we can’t talk about on Public Radio, it’s just googling the names of old schoolmates.  It’s increasingly the cause of cylences.  Cylences: are  the long gaps in a phone conversations that occur when a person is reading e-mail or cybershopping while talking on the phone.  Or schoogling. 

I think there are lots of thoughts we can’t think without having the right words.  Or at least, wouldn’t be very likely to.  Different languages and cultures have different words, and hence have different conceptual schemes, and even see the world differently. 

One might suspect there’s less truth to this than there seems to be.  I just translated the word linguists found most difficult to translate, `ilunga’, with an English phrase about ten words long.  Before I ever had the word I could have thought, ``Ken is the sort of person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.  Isn’t that the same thought you I have when I think ``Ken is an ilunga”?  What’s the big deal?  I could invent the word, ``lexijerk” to mean ``radio personality who shows off by using new words in a pointless way” and offer it to Ken.  Then Ken can think ``John is a lexijerk”.  But it’s probably a thought he has had before, without benefit of this great word.  

But when a culture or a language or a co-host finds a word to be useful, it suggests that the phenomenon, for which the word stands, has some importance, gets at a distinction worth making.  The word ``Ilunga” encodes the insight, or at least possible insight, that the people it takes three offenses to truly anger form an interesting class; they may share other characteristics. 

On the other hand, I’m  told the French don’t have a word for ``berry”, just words for strawberries and raspberries and blueberries, but not a general word.  But they still recognize the class; they serve a nice compote made only of berries.

Most of these examples come from Geoff Nunberg, the Berkeley and NPR linguist who will join us on Sunday’s program.  Geoff is a thoughtful linguist, who will help us get beyond my amateurish speculations on the importance of words. 

July 22, 2011 | Permalink


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JP: I hope your guest does get you past any amateurish speculations you believe you have about the importance of words. Frankly, my feeling is that there are no such speculations. Everything I have learned in my sentence on this planet has shown me that words are who we are. Sure, this is a generalization: people who are born deaf, speechless, or both may never vocalize, but, if they are well-educated, they will learn SIGNIFICANCE, even though they cannot experience the sound of speech.
I expect folks like Marlee Matlin could say this better than I.

Rafiki, warumi, zangu... these are Swahili words which are part of the old saw: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. But if you should repeat these words to a Swahili speaker who had never heard of a Roman, he would still get much of the message, as long as he could frame the context as something relative to his own values and traditions. Just sayin'...

Posted by: Harold G. Neuman | Jul 22, 2011 6:39:16 PM

Hi, Charles Myro here,

On the one hand it seems clear that without words we can't even ask the question: "is there thinking without words?" On the other hand if we assume words are necessary for thinking then we can never get beyond words to find out if there is such a thing as thought without words; kind of like Kant's thing in itself, which is inacessible to us and so is uncomfirmable by us.
Or maybe we can assume that words are not necessary for thought-perhaps mental pictures or some such may occur----but wait, this statement's in words, and it seems that I couldn't even have that thought without words; could we have mental pictures without the words "mental pictures"?; where does the word end and the thing begin?
Something tells me I will be chasing my tail in a moment and I'd better stop now.
Please let me know when you solve the issue, ok?

Posted by: Charles Myro | Jul 22, 2011 8:58:26 PM

To me, words suggest communicable generalizations and semantic content. When we find a word from another language whose semantic content possesses a useful generalization, we adopt it. Furthermore, if it were just the words that we thought in, and not the semantic content of the words, then how would it be possible to learn new words in the first place?

With this in mind, the reason we use words to make plans is because we simply use words to link together the semantic content using a grammatical structure to show the relation of the content. It reminds me of Wittgenstein, who says that words and grammar work together to form an image of the world that we then see as corresponding to some state of affairs. We understand the image as well as the world, but often it is easier to arrange the image than it is the world itself. Hence, thinking in words allows us to arrange the image and find what state of affairs will correspond to it. We can do this in any way we want, so long as we symbolically represent the world and have relations between them that we can understand. This also helps us understand how new words help us understand the world better, they create a new image that we then see corresponding to the world and thus we develop a richer view of the world by enlarging our number of possible images of the world.

This is summary of course, but I think it compromises between the "we think exclusively in language" and "language is a byproduct" crowd because it still relies on the semantic content of the words and our ability to understand the semantic content prior to the linguistic element.

Posted by: James Claims | Jul 23, 2011 6:36:45 PM

To quote another blogster, name of Comrade Ade (15 Minute Philosopher): words are messy. The Canadian linguist,Pinker, approaches this, in a round about way in some of his works. Words are what we humans have; what we use to try to make sense of relations and relationships---to get along with our families, friends and neighbors. But there are interminable misunderstandings and misinterpretations of meaning(s). Some of these are by accident-some are not. Personal agendas are causative in this regard. Frequently. Intentionally, or accidentally. We all know this, intuitively and experientially. As Wilber has said: and just so.

Languages are poignantly different; nuance is as varied as the gradations of colour in the rainbow. But people, emotions, agendas and expectations are largely the same, cultural differences notwithstanding.

If you noticed my spelling of the word colour, you might have thought I'm from England. You would have been wrong. You were only having an expectation based on experience or assumption. Words are worth a lot. Things are difficult with them. Things would be more so without.

Posted by: Dave the Carpenter | Jul 24, 2011 5:08:32 PM


Now, word stuff is interesting, but there isn't much philosophy to be done around WORDS. LANGUAGE, now that is a very different matter.

The three most important human powers are love, hate and language. The question about language is whether A. its symbolic and metaphorical services make language the most accurate and useful thing we have for representation of, and interaction with, reality; or B., does language actually subvert and misrepresent reality, and bend it to some nefarious purpose, or at worst, obscure reality.

I propose as part of next year's Big Game Week (Stanford v Cal), Searle (Cal)(representing the A position) debate the issue with Rorty (Stanford)(representing the B position).

Posted by: Mirugai | Jul 24, 2011 5:35:01 PM

How would you find out if words or language or concepts distort reality?
Once you presume that reality and language are separate and different things then it follows that if you stop thinking and speaking, just sit there, then that is reality.
Then start thinking and speaking again and see if the reality is different.
But how do you know whether reality includes words and concepts or not? What would tell you that what there is without words is reality but what there is with words is not reality?
How would you confirm one way or the other? Seems rather an assumption.
Seems to me that language, words, concepts etc., are
, if anything, part of our reality.
And on "semantic content": If a watusi describes a warthog and it is translated for me into english, it is not at all clear that the two descriptions are the same or even equivalent. Thus the basis for a common "semantic content" is very much dubitable. How would you show, for instance, that the "semantic content" is the same and it is just the "expression" of the content that is different or vice versa.
And Wittgenstein's theory of meaning or sense; that the structure of a statement somehow mirrors the structure of the world. How would one confirm that the world has the structure and its not just the words that have the structure?

Posted by: Mitchell Monaghan | Jul 25, 2011 3:37:34 PM

The most important word One needs to define is truth.
Truth is One!
Be One too,


Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Jul 26, 2011 5:49:30 AM

All of these questions, theories and postulations about words! Those fundamental fragments of human communication... I am not a Cartesian---haven't read much or M. Descartes' work. But I do recall something he said about those things relative v. those absolute.
He said, essentially, that some things are relative and some are absolute. And so, I offer this: some words we use are relative; some are absolute. So far, so good.

But, wait a minute. Descartes often contradicted himself---his ideas were confusing; his prose fraught with convoluted compound sentences which led to shaky conclusions. The Church was unhelpful, because he was obliged to adhere to its dogma, or be labelled: Heretic, and be censored (or worse). Still, his statement about relative v. absolute rings true.

At least, he got published before he died (didn't he?)
Pere Teilhard du Chardin was not so fortunate. But, then again, du Chardin did not bow to the power of the Church. Well. Here we are today; still arguing about what? Words. How quaint.

Posted by: P. David Van Pelt | Jul 26, 2011 3:59:09 PM

Decartes simplified the problem of truth in a place called Ulm, the town where the great problem solver Einstein was born. He rebooted like a computer his own self, Decartes' Method. The result was "I" the absolute, his true self. Unfortunately he couldn't deal with it and his thoughts grabbed him like a bad habit and pulled him back again too his as is ours most uncertain Ways. He found the truth, himself, and lost it again.

I have yet to find any One else past or present east or west to have grasped it All, if only for a fleeting moment.

Study Decartes, it may help you along the way!


Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Jul 27, 2011 8:27:10 AM

I have read Descartes. Tried to understand him. Tried very hard. Failed. My loss, I guess. Obviously, I missed something. Or, perhaps, there was not so much to miss? Thanks, anyway, MJH. Your haiku-like comments are refreshing.

Posted by: Harold G. Newman | Jul 27, 2011 3:44:50 PM

Never connected Einstein in Ulm and Descartes. Always something new to learn! jp

Posted by: John Perry | Jul 27, 2011 4:12:14 PM

I came from New Ulm, I bet you didn't know that either?
Oh and, I found what they were looking for.
Truth is much more simple than thought.


Thanks for the great forum,
A philosopher is a true lover of truth.

Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Jul 28, 2011 1:03:38 AM

...if I may suggest:

Rather than "Philosophy Talk ...the blog"

I think: "Philosophy Talk ...The Lyceum" has a better ring.
But then what are words worth anyway?


Posted by: Michael J Ahles | Jul 29, 2011 5:50:38 AM

Words/language/paradigms do not distort reality. It just is what it is. If some of us want to re-arrange that, too freakin bad for the rest of us, who may not benefit from re-arrangements. But, then again, this is why we invented politics and religion, isn't it? Oh, please don't hit me with the divinity issue. Or The Jesus Incident. Or The Lazarus Effect Good night, Irene---good night. Frank Herbert and Robert Anson Heinlein, RIP.

Posted by: Dr. Sardonicus | Jul 29, 2011 5:18:52 PM

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