A very sharp email turned up in my inbox today. My brother is getting a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago and he points out a rather profound blunder of mine:
Just read your blog from Tanzania. Fascinating stuff. I was kind of struck by one entry, though. The bit about Kiswahili lacking adjectives to describe frustration and confusion seems like the kind of statement that could use additional explanation and context.
For one thing, you'll note that English also lacks adjectives for the very emotions you named: confusion and frustration are nouns. (And "confused" and "frustrated" are, arguably, participles rather than pure adjectives.) But more importantly, according to an online Kiswahili dictionary, there are at least ten words that can be used to denote confusion with various nuances.
Most of all, though, the idea that any language lacks the capacity to express particular emotional states that can be expressed by another language is a really, really controversial topic, and one that people take pretty seriously as you can probably imagine. It's kind of like the legend about how that Inuits have hundreds of words for snow (rather than the 4 to 7 or so that they actually have), except even more problematic and tense because it calls into question whether some
languages are deficient for describing universal human emotions, or whether some emotions aren't actually universal at all.
Suppose, for instance, that I were to tell you that there are no words in English for the words Russians use to describe common emotional states. How could such a claim ever be proven or disproven? Russians use the word "gordost'", and English speakers use the word "pride", but since we're talking about emotional states rather than external objects in the world that you can point to, how could you ever conclusively
demonstrate that the two words mean the same thing? We'd be left arguing about whether or not this is a failure of language or a failure of emotion... and either way, one language-community claims that the other is failing at something deeply personal and subjective: the experience and expression of emotion.
So ultimately these sorts of claims tell you more about the claim-maker than the languages in question. So I would want to know: who told you this and under what contexts?
Well, as a matter of fact, it was told to me by a Peace Corps volunteer who has been living in Bukoba for almost 2 years. I accepted it without question as it excused some of my failings as a reporter. To believe it means I'm off the hook. It's ok that I don't understand, because it's not *my* failure, but rather it is a failure of the language, I would have liked to believe. It was a convienance to believe it and I am sure it speaks to the confusion and frustration that both I and this Peace Corps volunteer felt.
Brian is good to so articulately express why this is likely to be a totally bogus claim...so I thought I'd pass it on.