Wittgenstein: Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.

Passer-by: Where's that guy from? Is he Dutch?

I've never thought much of the Wittgenstein's argument. First, there's non-verbal thinking that can be used to escape the limits of the language. Second, once the knowledge is gained by non-verbal thinking, it can be used to extend the language itself and thus extend the limits of everyone's world.

However, I've been writing newspaper articles and a blog in Slovak lately and the experience made me think of the Wittgenstein quote.

Namely, I had hard time expressing some ideas and making some arguments. Slovak, you see, is a language of 5 million speakers, with ~200 years of history as a literary language. A lot of terms that one can use in English simply do not exist.

I can't say, for example:

I support policy X because it enables economies of scale and I am against policy Y because it introduces a single point of failure.

There are no widely accepted equivalents to "economies of scale" and "single point of failure".

I can say:

Som za X, pretože umožňuje úspory z rozsahu a som proti Y, pretože zavádza jediný bod zlyhania.

It's hard to relate how that sounds. Enough to say that "úspory z rozsahu" doesn't literally translate to "economies of scale" but rather to "savings from the extent". One gets an impression of a crackpot speaking gibberish, making a crackpot argument.

It should be said that this is not a problem in one-to-one conversations. One can use the English term if the other is aware of it, or, if not, he can clarify the meaning of the term in advance. Where the problem hits is the public discussion. There you can't expect the prior knowledge or afford extensive explanations. Attention span in public discussion is, after all, very limited. If you waste your one minute of public attention by explaining what a single point of failure is, you've already lost.

It can be argued that the problem lies not with the language, but rather with the language speakers: Slovaks are simple people, uneducated, they don't have the concept of economies of scale. Therefore, they should be educated and the term would force its way into the language all by itself.

But that, while true, is missing the point.

Most English speakers don't know what economies of scale are either. Yet, with 1.5 billion English speakers there's a large enough minority that does. They use the term, they write about it, they discuss it. If you encounter the term and you are not sure what it means you can google it and find out that there's a lot of hits, that some pretty serious people are discussing it, you can even learn what it means yourself. In any case, there's none of this "lonely crackpot" perception that you get if using a small language.

All in all, in small language communities, the limits of the language are the limits of the Overton window. Some policies are not on the table not because people are opposed to them but because they can't even discuss them.

It reminds me of what Joe Henrich says about small populations:

There are these great cases in the ethnohistorical record of groups like the Polar Inuit who get cut off from the rest of the Inuit population. Then they begin to lose valuable tools and technology because their own brains remain the same size, but their collective brain became severed. They’re not able to maintain as much know-how in the population.

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I think I can understand the problem.

I have translated HPMoR and some Lesswrong's post into Russian. And sometimes I was discovering an absence of Russian translations for some terms (especially in psychology). Often it was hard to find some "less wrong" words.

For example, one arc in HPMoR is titled "Taboo tradeoffs". And we (our translation team) asked some people who studied psychology, but no one had known Russian analogue for this term. In the end we gave up and changed the title. (Russian version can be translated into English as "Price of priceless things".)

In fiction sometimes you can change a sentence to translate its meaning without using a particular word. (Sometimes it doesn't work because you need to show a character who used a particular scientific term.) Sometimes I am just using "calque" and footnote with English term and short description or link to Wikipedia.
 

If you encounter the term and you are not sure what it means you can google it and find out that there's a lot of hits, that some pretty serious people are discussing it, you can even learn what it means yourself.

In addition I think it's easier to learn a new term if it is made of "usual" words rather than a calque.

Interestingly, "taboo" is itself a recent introduction to English; I suspect that one of English's strengths is that it's so full of pilfered words that it is natural to take another given the opportunity, whereas in more coherent languages they would stick out like a sore thumb.

In Russian word "taboo" was introduced too. Problem was with a term "taboo tradeoff" as a whole. We had thought that a literal translation may produce wrong connotation or no connotation.

In Russian we have many adopted words too, but, yes, it is more difficult due to declinations and conjugations.

Whether it's a calque or a descriptive expression, I think the main problem is still that it addresses only one term. You encounter a term that has no good translation, invent your own translation, start using it and maybe it'll eventually catch on. But then you have to do the entire dance again for the next term.

What I was thinking of was using the English terms. There are, obviously, problems with the declinations, transliteration to cyrilic or what not, but the main blocker, I think, is that using English terms is seen as ugly, un-literary and generally low status.

But that doesn't have to be so: Consider the use of Latin phrases in Europe in XIX. century. It was, back then, seen as beautiful, literary and high-status. If the same could be achieved today with English, it would allow small language communities to break out of the language cage.

using English terms is seen as ugly, un-literary and generally low status.

Not sure how transparent is this for native English speakers, but imagine something like this:

A: "To avoid dehydration, you should drink a lot of aqua."

B: "Just say 'water', moron!"

The connotation is that the first speaker is either pretentious, trying to gain some status cheaply by using a Latin word (connotating "I am educated", without actually saying anything impressive), which gets a fair slapdown ("we are just as educated as you")... or maybe actually repeats the teacher's password without fully understanding it, which would be quite shameful in case of an idea this simple.

The principle is that the person who fully understands the idea (that you should drink water), and isn't trying to play blatant status moves, would almost certainly have said "water" instead.

Which is a good heuristic (communication should be as clear as possible)... that fails if you are using the foreign word because there literally is no good translation (that would convey the intended connotations).

Whether it's a calque or a descriptive expression, I think the main problem is still that it addresses only one term. You encounter a term that has no good translation, invent your own translation, start using it and maybe it'll eventually catch on. But then you have to do the entire dance again for the next term.

Yes, I agree.

Consider the use of Latin phrases in Europe in XIX. century. It was, back then, seen as beautiful, literary and high-status. If the same could be achieved today with English, it would allow small language communities to break out of the language cage.

I think it depends on education in the community. Yes, for example, Leo Tolstoy in "War and peace" wrote even vast fragments in French. But most of his readers knew French well. (Almost exclusively well-educated person had time for fiction reading.) Now despite mandatory learning in school at least one foreign language many Russians know very badly even Latin alphabet (not to mention rules about reading English words). If you are writing/translating something for specialists, you may ignore that. But if you are writing fiction or something for beginners, you need to think about that.

And yes, we have problems with declinations. It is hard to read sentences in Russian with words which cannot be declined by language rules.

And I often think about the problem: If a reader knows English and sees words, for example, "taboo tradeoff", I think they can understand that "tradeoff" is about changing something to something. And due to that they can understand the whole term easier. If a reader doesn't know English, they see only some strange letter set. I think it may be important in writing text for beginners.

"I support policy X because it enables economies of scale and I am against polcy Y because it introduces a single point of failure."  

polcy -> policy

I think private messages are more appropriate for notifying someone about their typos. Cleaning up typos is helpful, but posting it publicly clutters up the comment section.

On the other hand, if you send a private message, others don't see that you did, so they may report the same thing. Therefore, I propose a new feature.

I think you may be exaggerating this.

"Úspory z rozsahu" seems quite legit for "economies of scale", but you could still say something like "because producing things in bulk is more efficient" and then everyone would get what you mean, and it is only twice as long.

The case for "single point of failure" is stronger; even Wikipedia does not have a Slovak article on this concept. It is a more complicated concept, because you need to specifically express that the problem is not "X mail fail", but rather that "the failure of X alone, no matter how unlikely, would collapse the entire system". A clumsy explanation would likely be misinterpreted to mean "he believes that X is likely to fail" and result in responses about how X is quite reliable -- which is not the objection you tried to make.

I am outsourcing this problem to Facebook, will report suggestions later.

EDIT:

The first suggestions were (translated back to English): "critical", "Achilles' heel", and "the weakest link", which... do not express exactly the same idea. -- The Achilles' heel is an X that is fragile in itself, I think. The weakest link suggests that this the most vulnerable place in a sequence, rather that the problem is lack of parallelism. "Critical" doesn't feel specific enough... though maybe that's just about me.

More ideas: "the entire plan stands - or falls - on X", "without X the entire plan would collapse", "a bottleneck" (but this is about throughput, not redundancy), "a fatal weakness" (has the connotation that X is a weakness per se, not that the system is weak because its overreliance on X).

You can not escape your operating system. If you become fluent in non-verbal it just means your language has expanded.

How do Slovak economics books translate "economies of scale"? How do Slovak engineering books translate "single point of failure"?

"Economies of scale" seems to be "úspory z rozsahu" ("saving from the extent") - but that sounds really weird and I've never heard it being used. My guess is that the economics professors just use the English term.

As for "single point of failure" I am an engineer myself and I've never encountered any Slovak equivalent.

What about in translations of English texts? (I'm guessing that's pretty common, but have no actual idea.)

I think you are on the wrong track. Of course, in the end you can find the equivalent term that someone used somewhere.

But look at it from a different perspective.

Take a term that is used and understood in the rationalist community. Say "Moloch".

Now try to write an opinion piece to The Washington Post. If you want to refer to the concept of "Moloch" you can either explain it, wasting your allotted 3000 characters quickly, or just say "Moloch" and hope someone would get it. In the latter case one or two people may get it and the rest would think you are a crackpot referring to the ancient Phoenician deity in a completely unrelated context.

The problem is that the rationalist community is too small for its terminology "to be in the Overton window". Not so with economic terminology. That community is large enough and the terms like "economies of scale" are admissible in public discourse.

Now scale that down to a small language community. Suddenly, the rationalist community is so small that it, for all practical purposes, does not exist. The economists are now in the position that the rationalists were in in the anglosphere. There are few of them and their terminology is not widely understood and accepted.

In other words: In the US you can't make an argument in public discussion involving rationalist concepts. But you can use economic terminology and get away with it. In Slovakia, you often can't.

Sorry, I should have made it more explicit that I wasn't making any sort of objection to your general point, just wondering about the specific examples you used.

I completely agree that, whether or not there are Slovak terms that are good translations of "economies of scale" and "single point of failure", there are definitely some languages, or dialects, or systems of technical terminology, in which there are some things that can't be said so easily in some others, and that limits on what can easily be talked about are important, and that what communities' ideas end up with a barrier to entry into public discourse will depend on the size of the community and the size and quirks of whatever larger community they're embedded in.

I'm not wholly convinced, though, that the size of the larger community is really the point. (To be clear, this is no part of what I was saying before, it's just something I notice while affirming that I agree with all those things I agree with.) If I try to get my head around the mechanisms whereby there aren't (assuming that indeed there aren't) Slovak terms for various standard economics concepts, the size of the Slovak-speaking world seems to enter in only quite indirectly: it's something like "Slovakia isn't a large market, so there aren't a lot of translations of English-language economics texts into Slovak, so the main channel by which those terms would have got into the Slovak language is rather narrow, so those terms haven't had much chance to take hold". All of which might be true, and does have to do with the size of the community -- but (1) only quite indirectly, and (2) it seems like there are other equally plausible mechanisms that have nothing to do with the size of the community. Maybe there are more economists in richer countries, and Slovakia is relatively poor, and so doesn't have a lot of people who have been exposed to technical terms of economics. Maybe it's relevant that Slovakia used to be part of the Soviet bloc where the prevailing approach to economics was very different from what we have in the West, and that has meant that there are fewer economists now, or that the ideas taught in economics courses are different, or something. Etc.

(Maybe you are actually proposing a direct effect of absolute community size: you need at least N people to make your community and its terminology visible enough for others to take notice. But it seems much more likely to me that the requirement there is for a certain fraction of the community, maybe a fraction "weighted by prestige" in some sense. I would expect the ideas and terminology of a 1000-person community in a country of 10M to have about the same amount of influence as those of a 100,000-person community in a country of 1B. I think.)

I found this interesting. Finnish is also language of about 5 million speakers, but we have a commonly used natural translation of "economies of scale" (mittakaavaetu, "benefit of scale"). Any commonplace obvious translation for "Single point of failure" didn't strike my mind, so I googled, and found engineering MSc thesis works and similar documents: the words they choose to use included yksittäinen kriittinen prosessi ("single critical process", most natural one IMO), yksittäinen vikaantumispiste ("single point of failure", literal translation and a bit clumsy one), yksittäinen riskikohde ("single object of risk", makes sense but only in the context), and several phrases that chose to explain the concept.

Small languages need active caretaking and cultivation so that translations of novel concepts are introduced, and then there is active intellectual life where they are used. In Finnish, this work has been done for "economies of scale", but less efficiently for "single point of failure". But I believe one could use any of the translations I found or invent ones own, maybe add the English term in parenthesis, and not look like a crackpot. (Because I would expect quite a few people are familiar with the concept with its English name. In a verbal argument I would expect a politician just say it in English if they didn't know an established equivalent in Finnish. Using English is fancy and high-status in Finland in the way French was fancy and high-status in the 19th century.)

In another comment you make a comparison to LW concepts like Moloch. [1] I think the idea of "cultivation" is also applicable to LW shibboleths too, especially in the context of the old tagline "rising the sanity waterline". It is useful to have a good language - or very least, good words for important concepts. (And also maybe avoid promoting words for concepts that are not well thought-out.) Making such words common requires active work, which includes care in choice of words that are descriptive/good-sounding and good judgement to choose words and use-patterns that they can become popular and make it to common use without sounding crackpot-ish. (In-group shibboleths can become a failure mode.) 

Lack of such work is obvious sooner in small languages than in larger ones, but even large language with many speakers, like English, miss words for every concept they have not yet adopted a word for.

In Iceland, much smaller language, I have heard they translate and localize everything.

[1] https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/zSbrbiNmNp87eroHN/the-cage-of-the-language?commentId=rCWFaLH5FLoH8WKQK

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