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Thread: Why are there multiple words for something when there is just one in English?

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    Why are there multiple words for something when there is just one in English?

    For example, F*** you has two meanings in Russian.

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    Почтенный гражданин xXHoax's Avatar
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    Well, on a large scale, the parsing of the world into packages of words is agreed upon by groups, and handed down to descendants. So, partly we draw distinctions where we do because we have agreed on it as a group, separate from other groups, and partly because we just happened to receive this language from our ancestors as opposed to some other language.

    The reason the language can differ is because the decision of what distinctions to draw is not an easy decision, nor one with obvious correct answers. Basically every language distinguishes between obvious things like "cat" versus "dog", but many concepts can be so complicated that where exactly to draw the lines becomes much more particular to the language.

    The most famous area of this is with colors. Some people will tell you that the lines that languages draw are arbitrary and on a whim; this is wildly untrue. Languages draw their lines based off of many different causes and reasonings, and almost always there is a pattern to be found across all languages, basically because the language is field-tested against the world with a requirement: it has to work. Colors are no different: Essentially all languages have words for white and black, most of those have a word for red, most of those have a word for green, and so on and so forth. So, a very few languages *only* have words for white and black, and have to use metaphorical terms to refer to the rest of colors. The words for colors form in a trend (languages do not just slice up the color wheel randomly). As a language develops, first it gains the words for black and white, then I believe red, and more (light and dark being the most important distinction, then red, the color of blood and ripe fruit—important things). Once you get to more specific color distinctions however, the languages start to go each their own way: Russian distinguishes between light, 'голубой', and dark blue 'синий', but English does not. Both English and Russian distinguish between light and dark red ('red' and 'pink', for us), whereas many languages would simply say "light red" for pink.

    'Happy' is a word that for English covers the meaning (debatably) of multiple Russian words:
    счастливый ~happy, feeling good
    довольный ~ happy, content "Happy?" (*said sarcastically, perhaps)
    рад (adjective that only appears in short form) ~ happy, glad "Happy to see you"

    Emotions, as you can imagine, are much more complicated and thus different languages diverge in how they split up the possible concepts. It's not necessarily an untrammeled good to have "more words" for a concept. The benefits of more distinction I think are clear without much thought, but the benefits of more encompassing, non distinguishing words might need explanation. First of all, a word like 'happy' is capable through context of referring specifically to each of the parsed Russian words' meanings, so it is not undescriptive, to an extent. There are also benefits, however abstract and hard to pinpoint they may be, to simply not making distinctions, at times. Imagine, for example, the word "mammal". Why have the word mammal when you have the words for "cat", "dog", "deer", and "human"? Well because there are times when it is better not to make the distinction. This example is obviously extreme, since it's pretty hard to imagine not having a word for "dog", but with something like "happy" you could imagine not needing to distinguish, by use of a separate word, between "happy as in feeling as though things are positive" and "happy as in feeling as though things are not negative"

    To top it all off, technically English does "have words" for the different types of "happy", we just have different contextual implications attached to the words, and different vogues surrounding their use. For instance, we may find it a bit gauche to say "I am content with this" and instead simply say "I am happy with this"; because the word "content" has a different register than "довольный", it is used differently.

    Other than that, not sure what you mean.
    Lampada and Soft sign like this.
    "В тёмные времена хорошо видно светлых людей."
    - A quote, that only exists in Russian. Erich Maria Remarque

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