What are Words Worth?

Sunday, July 24, 2011
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 27, 2009

What Is It

How do words shape our minds?  Do the French suffer because they have no word for berry or cozy?  Do we suffer because we have no word for schadenfreude?  Why do we adopt new words, or give old words new meaning?  Can we eliminate a concept by renaming it, or eliminating the word for it?  Ken and John welcome back Geoff Nunberg, author of The Years of Talking Dangerously, for a program recorded in front of a live audience at the Marsh theatre in San Francisco.

Listening Notes

The show begins with John calling Ken an 'ulunga.' Ken, not taking kindly to the label, begins to banter with John about the effects of using new words for old concepts. They detour into a conversation about schoogling, cylence, and the French concept of berries before Ken finally just fights John’s fire with with his own, deeming John a 'lexi-jerk.'

After a short break, Ken and John welcome guest Geoffrey Nunberg to the show. They begin by asking him whether the words we use shape and limit the concepts we think with. If the Eskimos only had words for very specific different kinds of snow, did they lack the general concept of ‘snow’ that we have, or just have a different way of getting at the same concept? Geoffrey suggests that words don’t irremediably limit the concepts we have, using as examples the concept of ‘originality’ (a term that, ostensibly, people had the concept for before the word was invented in the 1700s) and the German concept of ‘schadenfreude’ (which denotes taking pleasure in other people’s misfortune). Geoffrey concludes that, contrary to expectation, words actually increase our opportunities to talk about something without really knowing what we are really talking about.

Ken asks why he should value lingui-diversity: isn't it a good thing if we all speak the same language, so we can all communicate? Geoffrey reminds him that not everyone would agree that all languages have the same capacity to serve as tools for good communication (especially the French, he thinks), and so it wouldn't be easy to choose the language. He also encourages Ken to consider the possibility he thinks many American do not, that would solve Ken’s lingui-diversity concern: that it may be possible to fit more than one language in one brain.

The show concludes with a deep thought from Ken about the special role that words play in the development of our concepts, and a (less) deep thought from John about why philosophers should get bigger salaries.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:05): Rina Palta talks to Mark Hershon, who runs a comedy improv team called 'Frisco', about the unpopular word they picked as a name for the team and how they use words in their sketches.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:00): Ian Shoales covers the 'urban dictionary' and how our rebellion against the English people became a rebellion against the English language.