Tag Archives: skepticism

This paper on happy words makes me angry

There’s a new paper out in the Journal of Positive Psychology: “Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being”, by Dr. Tim Lomas, in the Department of Psychology, at the University of East London. I don’t read this journal regularly, and I only heard about it through a Huffington Post article.

As you can tell from the title, the paper is about so-called “untranslatable” words. These are words from other languages which are extremely precise in meaning, and difficult to render into English. There have been plenty of books published on the topic, and lots of websites exist too. If you just google the phrase “untranslatable words” you’ll see what I mean, and actually you’ll be doing the same amount of research as Lomas did for his paper. More on that later. Continue reading

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How many words could English have?

How many words are there in English? A popular method for counting words in a language is to use the total number in a dictionary (or some other corpus). But counting words this way doesn’t tell us anything very interesting about “English”, because not every speaker of English knows every word in the dictionary.

For example, you might know the word beech refers to a tree, but not know how to identify one in the woods. You might know that some governments are jingoistic, but not know which ones or why. Maybe you confuse yams and sweet potatoes all the time.

So does beech count as “part of English” if not every speaker of English knows it, uses it, or understands it? The words you know depend on things like education, job, dialect, how much you read, where you grew up, your hobbies, how much you’ve traveled and so on.
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Being a skeptical grammarian

So the grammarian tells you that you shouldn’t put prepositions at the end of sentences. And you say sure, this guy’s a grammarian, he knows what he’s talking about, I’ll try to do what he says.

But suppose you’re more of the skeptical type. You find something fishy about the claim. You demand evidence. How would you go about fact-checking this? The best evidence comes from observation of native speakers. And if you go do some observation, it turns out that people are ending their sentences with prepositions all over the place. The supposed rule is quite at odds with how people actually talk. Something’s up. Do people have bad grammar? Or is the rule wrong? This is a rhetorical question of course: obviously the rule is wrong. Let’s think about it.
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