alex gross language at
Sat Mar 19 09:39:18 UTC 2011

Suspect some languages may have problems becoming more versatile due to 
unconscious esthetic factors, for instance a preference in English for 
high-flown latinate names over more basic equivalents, even when such 
equivalents might be theoretically available. Which of course can lead to 
greater "complexity," though not in a positive way. Gave some examples of 
this in a 1987 interview on translating medical terms across Chinese, 
English, and German:

"A. Take the two bones in our lower arm. The only names we have for them 
today are ulna and radius. These are the 'scientific names,' the ones 
medical people--and few others--learn. Those bones are important to you 
every day, yet you have no everyday way of referring to them at all. But 
there is clear evidence from historical linguistics that these bones once 
had other names. The ulna was once called the 'el,' the radius possibly 
something like the 'spoke.' We know about the 'el' from Seventeenth Century 
poetry (maid to lover: 'if I give you an inch, you'll soon take an el') but 
also from modern German, where the words are die Elle and die Speiche."

"Even in modern English the place where the 'el' makes a bend or 'bow' (sich 
beugt) is called the elbow. In Chinese these words translate as foot-measure 
bone (close to the meaning of 'el') and rowing bone. All bones and all 
locations in the body have similar down-to-earth names in Chinese. Which 
people is likely to be on better terms with their bodies--one that has names 
such as these or one where everything is linguistically off-limits except to 
doctors? German continues to a better job here even today with such words as 
Gehirnhautentzündung and Harnröhre for meningitis and urethra.

    "Q. It also occurs to me that a German child could understand words like 
Riss- und Wuetschwunder, whereas an English-speaking child would not 
understand 'lacerations and contusions.'"

Full text of this piece is available at:

All the best to everyone!


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Tahir Wood" <twood at>
To: <FUNKNET at>
Sent: Friday, March 18, 2011 8:07 AM
Subject: [FUNKNET] Versatility?

In the wake of all this discussion about increasing complexity, I wonder if 
anyone here has thoughts on versatility. Does language become increasingly 


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