LINGUIST List 11.1865

Tue Sep 5 2000

Sum: Expressions for 'Language'

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. G�nter Radden, Expressions for 'Language'

Message 1: Expressions for 'Language'

Date: Tue, 5 Sep 2000 01:14:20 +0200
From: G�nter Radden <>
Subject: Expressions for 'Language'

For Query: Linguist 11.1659

Sum, addendum: Expressions for 'language'

Dear Linguists,
Since my posting of the sum on expressions for 'language' in Linguist on
August 14 I received some more interesting responses which I feel deserve to
be published.
I would like to express my thanks to:

Ivan A Derzhanski,
Yehuda Falk,
Suzette Haden Elgin,
Peter Jacobs,
Bill Morris,
Kazuko Shinohara,
Larry Trask,
Andrew Wilcox,


Since no one answered for Greek, I can at least confirm that the usual Greek
word for "language" - "glossa" - is the same as the usual word for "tongue"
(and for a species of flatfish). Its derived form"evglottia" can mean both 
"fluency" and "eloquence", though more specific terms for both these concepts 
are also available.

"phone" - i.e. " fon'i " : This would be translated into English as "voice"
in very many contexts, e.g. "a sweet voice", "the voice of the people", and
also "the passive voice". But there is also "foni" for "volume" of sound
from a TV etc, and for the "noises/cries" (or indeed "voices") of animals.

" di'alektos " - frequently used in the same way as "dialect" in English,
i.e. regional/geographically-defined form of language. The non-linguist's
connotation of "something inferior to the national language" may also be
present, as in English.
"dialektos" overlaps with "glossa" in at least one context e.g. "i glossa/o
dialektos ton (kakopion)" - the language of (criminal)s, (criminal)s' slang.

Another interesting word in Greek is "logos". This can mean "language",
"system of human communication using words", but rather with reference to
the human facility than to a particular named language: "speech / the power
of speech / ability to speak"
Some of its other uses:
"promise" or "word" - compare English "I give you my word".
The Biblical "word" as in "In the beginning was the Word"
"(the right to a ) conversational turn / the right to speak"
It gives the modern language a large number of derived words, such as
"logotechnia" = literature, "logios" = educated, cultured, "viologos" =
"logos" is itself related to the verb "lego" = say/tell, but does not appear
to be a metaphor - or if it began as a metaphor, this origin has been lost
in the mists of antiquity: I am reasonably sure of this last statement, but
will check it with an expert on Ancient Greek .
(Andrew Wilcox)


The most widespread Basque word for 'language' is <hizkuntza>.
This consists of <hitz> 'word' plus the noun-forming suffix
<-kuntza>, which typically forms what Basque grammarians call
'nouns of abstract action': hence 'word-activity', or something
of the sort.

The eastern varieties have another word, <mintzaira>. This
consists of the verb-stem <mintza-> 'speak' plus the suffix
<-era> 'way, manner': hence, 'way of speaking'. And <mintza->
in turn is a derivative of <mihi> 'tongue', whose regular
combining form is <min->. To be precise , we have <min-> plus <-tzo>,
yielding <mintzo> 'speech', 'conversation', whose regular combining
form is <mintza->. The full eastern verb for 'speak' is <mintzatu>,
with the usual verb-forming suffix <-tu>. Western varieties do not
have this verb, and for 'speak' they use instead <hitz egin>, literally
'do word(s)' or 'make word(s)', with the verb <egin> 'do, make'.
(Larry Trask)


there should be slight differences between lashon and safa, and
the two meanings you pointed out make perfect sense, child and adult

That generalization won't work always, though.

people who speak [foreign] languages:
 dovrei safot
 speakers.of 'safa'+PL

foreign language:
 safa zara
 "safa" foreign

spoken language:
 sfat dibur
 "safa"+CONSTRUCT speaking
[my dictionary also lists this with "laSon", but my kids and I agree that
it sounds better with "safa"]

sign language:
 sfat simanim
 "safa"+CONSTRUCT signs

natural language:
 safa tiv'it
 "safa" naural

artificial language:
 safa melaxutit
 "safa" artificial

programming language:
 sfat tixnut
 "safa"+CONSTRUCT programming

Biblical Hebrew:
 leSon hamikra
 "laSon"+CONSTRUCT the.Bible
[and similarly for other periods of Hebrew]

 leSon ham'ata
 "laSon"+CONSTRUCT belittling

 du- leSon-i
 bi- "laSon"-ADJECTIVE

(Yehuda N. Falk)

I have the impression that lashon is
overwhelmingly used for positive,
scholarly and meaningful aspects of
'language', while safa is used for negative
aspects (which somehow ties in with the
negative connotation of Engl. lip in
"pay lip service")
But then there are some few exceptions:
lashon is also used for flattery, slander,
gossip, scandal and everyday language,
and safa is found with promise, clear
speech and, which is especially troublesome,
with words of truth.
But if this is basically correct, do Canaanite
and Hebrew language have less prestige
than Mishnaic Hebrew?

I don't believe that "lashon" is positive while "safa" is negative.
This appears to be borne out by the discussions below.

It appears that "safa" is the more common word in Modern Hebrew,
while "lashon" appears in certain idioms. One might say that
"lashon" in the sense of language has a "Shakespearean" feel,
or, more accurately, a Biblical feel to it. "Safa" is just a more
general word. I suspect that it carries any particular baggage.

I don't believe that Ancient Hebrew or Caananite has any particularly
negative connotation.

The following email exchanges took place between me and two
friends, both of whom are engineers. So they are educated
but "linguistically na�ve" informants. Both have been away from
Israel for many years. (WM is me.)

WM: What is the difference between "lashon" and "safah",
in their meanings of "language"?

Giora Goldberg: To the matter, you seem to know it all: I do not
know how to distinguish between these 2 words. Lashon is not used
much, Safa is the common word.I do not believe any has a special
connotation. Lashon is used in foreign language: L-A-Z, which
means Leshon Am Zar, (this might have a slight negative shadow,
they were very tribal, still are...), but I can't recall anyone talking
about Lashon otherwise. Lashon is old, I think its biblical.

WM: Are there any other words for "language"?

GG: Sorry, I can't help, my Hebrew is also not what it used to be...
Other words for language? Can't think of any. I don't have a good Hebrew
to Hebrew dictionary. By the way, note that Safa also means edge.

WM: What is "Lashon Am Zar"? Who are the People of Zar (Am Zar)?

GG: L-A-Z means Leshon Am Zar, zar is foreign (or alien) in Hebrew.
Anyone not Jewish is Am Zar, (another nation).

WM: What is the difference between "lashon" and "safah",
in their meanings of "language"?

Mike Buczaczer: Interesting question. I have never learned or
heard about what difference there is. Safah is the more commonly used
word. Its connotation to me is a language in totality, all encompassing.
Lashon is not used as much. Its connotation to me is perhaps
more specific or restrictive in some way. Perhaps in a more literary sense.
When Hebrew is referred to as the language of the bible, or Mishnah,
etc. it's referred to as lashon hakodesh (the holy language).
Wish I could help you more, but I have not been exposed to the
difference between the two.

> Tell me, is there a different "feel" to the two words?

Yes, in the way I described last night. safah is really the word used. If
you speak with an Israeli and say eize leshonot atah medaber [1], he'll look
at you kind of weird and wonder what the hell you're talking about. However,
if you say to him ivrit zot lashon hakodesh [2], he'll fully understand.

[1: "Which languages (tongues) do you speak?]
[2: "Hebrew is the Holy Language (tongue).]

WM: I looked in another dictionary and found "dibur" as another
word meaning language. I've never heard that word, but it sounds
like it means "that which is spoken". Is that a common word?

MB: Dibur is never used as language. I don't know what that
dictionary's author was smoking when he wrote that in. Dibur,
as you guessed, is speaking, and even then it's rarely used.
Dibur often implies a delivery (of words), perhaps a speech or
sermon. Most often it'll be used as in mah hadibur hazeh?,
"what is this speaking?", when you ask kids why they are still
speaking since they are supposed to be asleep. tafsik et hadibur,
"stop the speaking" when you ask a rude sob in the theater to
stop speaking.
(Bill Morris)


I was wondering if you also have the word for
lip in some sense related to language in Japanese?

At first I could not imagine any expressions using
lip (kutibiru or kuchibiru), but my dictionary lists some 
phrases with 'lip'. These are not my active vocabulary, and in fact,
I did not know some of their meanings until I read the dictionary.

kutibiru-ga usui
lip Nom thin

kutibiru-o hirugaesu
lip Acc turn over
(to criticize)

kutibiru-o kaesu
lip Acc return, turn over
(to hate, to abuse)

These phrases are not so common, I think.
The following is a common expression.

kutibiru-o togarasu
lip Acc sharpen
(to complain)
(Kazuko Shinohara)


[...] the Japanese ideogram for "language" (pronounced GO)is
composed of the ideogram for "mouth" (a small rounded square),
with two or three pencil strokes above it (symbolizing the words
coming out and flying away), and associated with a cross that
means "100". All together, it adds up to "100 words flying",
or something like that). [...]
(Jean-Charles KHALIFA)

It's been ages since I read anything more puzzling. There is no
cross meaning `100' in the Chinese/Japanese script -- the cross-
like character is `10', but it doesn't form part of the character
_GO, kata(ru)_. (It does form part of _KEI, haka(ru)_ `measure,
count'.) As for _GO_, its right half is _GO, wa_ `I'; but it is
a phonetic, so it doesn't make sense to try to `add up' the meanings.

Other body-parts
ha 'tooth'
ha-ni kinu kise-nu 'tooth Loc clothes put not' = speak very frankly
(Kazuko Shinohara)

Interesting. This brings to mind the Bulgarian saying _da sa zhivi
predni z�bi_ (lit. `long live the front teeth'), used when one narrowly
avoids saying something secret, tactless or otherwise inappropriate.
One could also translate it as `bless the/my front teeth',
`front teeth be blessed' or the like. (The idea is that the tongue, which
generates speech, can be too zealous sometimes, so it is the teeth's duty 
to stop it.)

Then my book said that second part of _wa_
in 'talk' goes back to a Chinese ideogram
of a mouth with a tongue sticking out.

That is right. The left-hand part is _yan2_ `word; speak',
a mouth with sound waves symbolising speech. The right-hand
part is _she2_ `tongue', depicted as sticking out of a mouth.
The two add up to _hua4_ `speech, talk'.

Which brings to mind the way speech was designed in Aztec
pictography, by drawing a loose tongue in front of the mouth
of the speaker.

Which in turn leads to the fact that Quechua calls itself
_runa simi_ `Menschmund', that is, `human language'. Also
to the Gaelic word for `English', _Beurla_ < _beul_ `mouth'.

I suppose Bulgarian also has 'jenzyk'
or something for language in general.

_ezik_, actually. And of course it means both `tongue' and
`language', as in all Slavic lgs. The Old Slavic word was
also commonly used for `nation'; in Bulgarian that meaning
was lost a long time ago, but in Russian it can be found in
19C literature. -- In medi�val Church Slavonic sources _jazyk_
`tongue; language' was distinguished from _jazyk_ `nation' by
an artificial orthographic device (different letters were used
for the _ja_), but etymologically they are the same word.
(Ivan A Derzhanski)


In Squamish, a coast Salish language and in probably all the other languages
in this family, the suffix indicating mouth is used to refer to language,
speech, etc.

'speak fast'

Squamish also uses another suffix -qin 'hair, throat, head' to refer to
language in a few cases. The suffix for mouth is not used to refer to names of
languages in Squamish.

teyt-qin sqwxwu7mesh-qin
Teit-throat Squamish-throat
'speaking the Teit language' 'speak the Squamish langauge'
(Peter Jacobs)


I'm told that in Wolof the way one talks about language acquisition is to
say "I was nursed on Wolof," and that Wolof is referred to as mother's
milk. This may be apocryphal, and may fall outside your inquiry; I send it
along in passing, FYI.
(Suzette Haden Elgin)

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue