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Meetings of the Minds

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, May 29, 2003

A couple of months ago the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations published its list of the top 101 sayings of 2002. It included a remark that George W. Bush was supposed to have made to Tony Blair, "The problem with the French is that they have no word for 'entrepreneur.'"

After the list appeared, though, a spokesman for the Prime Minister denied that Bush ever said anything of the sort. I believe him -- the line really sounds too pat to be true, like a story the English would cook up to put in the mouth of an ignorant American.

What makes the story sound plausible is that you're always hearing people say this -- "the so-and-so people don't have a word for such-and-such," where the absence of the word is supposed to shed a telling light on a people's culture. At one time or another, I've heard it said that French doesn't have a word for "nice," that German doesn't have a word for "fair play," and that Chinese doesn't have a word for "privacy." Back in 1985, President Reagan asserted that the Russian language didn't have a word for freedom. (Of course it does -- "svoboda" -- but Reagan was never one to let details get in the way of a good story.)

I saw another one of these the other day when a friend sent me a link to an article which had appeared a while ago in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram and which had been widely reprinted on the Web. Its author was an Egyptian businessman and writer named Tarek Heggy, who claimed Arabic has no word for "compromise." For the Arabs, he said, compromise is associated with submission and weakness, whereas the the Anglo-Saxon nations value the ideas of compromise and a respect for the opinions of others.

Now I don't know Arabic, but that claim struck me as pretty bizarre on the face of things. Sometimes the absence of a word signals that a people don't have a particular concept, but that's usually because it's a notion they can live without. You're not surprised to learn that Tibetan doesn't have a word for "happy hour."

But it's hard to imagine how any people could run a global civilization without having a way of talking about compromise -- or for that matter, how they could manage their daily life. I mean, where would that leave you? "I wanted to spend our whole two-week vacation at the beach, and my wife wanted to spend it in the mountains. So we had to get a divorce."

So I checked with a couple of Arabic linguists, who confirmed that Arabic has several items that translate the English "compromise." I'm not sure why Heggy would think Arabs didn't have the notion, but probably it's because the most common way to speak of compromise in Arabic is to use a phrase rather than a single word -- you say "we reached a middle ground." But then we do the same thing when we talk about "a meeting of the minds" or "meeting someone half-way."

The fact is that people have plenty of concepts that their language doesn't happen to have a single word for. Take the German word Schadenfreude, which denotes the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others. True, it's a nice item to have handy in a pre-packaged form. But that doesn't mean that Red Sox fans have to learn German before they can enjoy watching the Yankees lose eight straight at home.

Still, people keep pointing to these gaps in the dictionary as if they had a profound cultural significance. More often than not, it's just a way of dressing an old racial stereotype in a new kind of cognitive garb.

Westerners have always attributed an unwillingness to compromise to the Arabs and the other Semitic peoples. T. E. Lawrence claimed that the Semites "have no half-tones in their register of vision." And after the failure of the British government's 1948 partition plan for Palestine, the English historian Elizabeth Monroe explained the breakdown by saying that the British were "full of capacity for compromise," and couldn't understand that they were dealing with "two peoples of the most uncompromising race in the world." The only difference is that back then no one felt the need to say that the Jews and the Arabs lacked a word for compromise -- they just assumed that obstinacy was bred in the Semitic bone.

But then you could make the same point about us Anglophones, if you were of a mind to. Nowadays we tend to use "uncompromising" as a morally complimentary term. "She's an uncompromising perfectionist" -- why is that necessarily a good thing? And we only use the adjective "compromised" with a negative meaning -- "The ambassador was too compromised to serve as an intermediary."

But language doesn't just give us the names of concepts, but ways of seeing them in different lights. Someone who strikes us as uncompromising on Monday can come to seem inflexible or obstinate by the end of the week, once we start to see the need of cutting a deal. If the players really want to find a compromise in the Middle East, they'll find the words for it.

1. Out of curiosity, I did a number of Google searches on strings of the form "L has no word for," "no word in L for" and the like. Some of the results (I refrain from commenting):

For L = French, I got hits for the completing words "home," "ape," "mind," "negro," "kilt," "noodles," "doggie bag," "grub," "river," "tacky," "jockstrap" (really?), "duct tape," "hangnail," and "shallow."

For L = German: "unless," "humor," "[the concept of a] team," "fluffy," "wife/husband," "actuary," "bitch," "pantaloon," "fair" (as in "fair play"), "playing," "convenience," "humility," and "bullying."

For L = Russian: "a/the," "identity," "design," "privacy," "toe," "copywriter," "freedom" and "thirsty."

For L = Spanish: "boys, fathers," "flunky," "heartburn," "sportsmanship," "bullfight," "accountability," and "compromise"(!).

For L = Chinese: "brand," "wrist," "garage sale," "headhunting," "word," privacy," "improvisation," "art," and "yes" (the last cited as a problem for Chinese translators of "Ulysses")

For L = English, among other things: "a housebreaker who works only by day," "sabbatical/jubilee" (not native words, the writer says), "Schadenfreude," "the area between the nose and the upper lip," "a mother who has lost a child," "Gemutlichkeit," the parents of one’s son- or daughter-in-law, "Zukunftsangst," "ugly beauty," "informed guess," "hospitality" (of the sort whose denial can get you in trouble with God), and "a person who sends letter bombs because he is mentally unbalanced and believes that technology is getting out of hand."

What a bunch.

Note to the note: Shortly after I posted this I had an indignant email from someone who pointed out that many of the claims in this list are inaccurate. I'll say.


Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.