I Have No Word

A World War II-era service flag. (Library of Congress.)

The other day, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Karen Meredith, who, along with other parents whose children had died in the military, had signed an open letter to Donald Trump asking him to apologize for his comments about the parents of late Army Capt. Humayun Khan. Meredith observed:

Losing a child, you know — there’s not a name. If you lose your parents, you’re an orphan, but there’s no name for a parent who has lost a child, not in any language because it’s so painful. It’s just hard.

The interview made me sad, and also curious as to Meredith’s assertion about languages. Of course, we do have “Gold Star mother/father/family,” which refers to the special case of a child who has died in military service and which has proved to be quite rhetorically powerful in the Khan controversy. The concept came from a World War I custom of families with children in the armed forces displaying special flags: Each blue star represented a son in the service, each gold star a son who had died. Gold Star Mothers formed as an organization in 1928 and continues.

But “Gold Star X” is a phrase, not a word. (And I’m not sure why words are privileged over fine phrases like that and “bereaved parent,” but that is a topic for another day.) Googling “no word for” led me to Language Log’s “‘No Word for X’ Archive,” an instructive and fascinating wormhole listing LL posts testing (and usually debunking) claims that particular languages lack a word for such and such. So Urdu does in fact have a word for rape, and the Mosuo people of southwest China do in fact have a word for father. The implication of the claims is usually that the absence of the word in a language correlates with particular attitudes and behavior of the people who speak it–and thus the archive is an implicit and sometimes explicit critique of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that that’s the way things work.

In any case, I broadened my search to “no language has a name/word/term for” and got surprisingly few results.  One, from Introduction to Psycholinguistics: Understanding Language Science, by Matthew J. Traxler, put forth the intriguing notion that certain words exist in languages only when certain other words are there.

Languages can have as few as two terms for emotions, and if they have only two, they will be the equivalence of anger and guilt. The next terms that will appear will be amusement, alarm, adoration, and depression. Languages that have more terms than the six will have all six. That is, no language has a word for lonely but not a word for guilt.

The same goes for colors, Traxler says. “No language has a term for orange that does not have a term for red.”

In a sermon, a Presbyterian minister said Mark Kurlansky’s book Non-Violence: Twenty-five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea “makes the case that every major language has a term for violence, but no language has a term for non-violence.” It sounds a bit like global Whorf-Sapireanism, and also a little dubious. We don’t have terms for non-running, non-cooking, or non-eating a sandwich, either, do we? And hang on a minute. Isn’t nonviolence a pretty potent term for non-violence?

Moving closer to Karen Meredith’s idea, a blogger, in an open letter to terrorists, wrote, “no language has a term for people who butcher children. Because no language contemplated it before you made it a reality.”

That idea rings relatively truer to me than Meredith’s too-painful-for-word notion (which was also voiced, in saltier language, in a 2001 episode of  Six Feet Under.)  We have words for quite a few extremely painful experiences. On the other hand, there are many many things in heaven and earth, and it seems the case that languages contain words for the ones that people seem to want to talk about, and/or that are commonly found. But not too commonly found. Thus, there’s agoraphobia, but no word for not being afraid to go outside.  As Language Log’s Mark Liberman commented in an e-mail, “In the Old Days, when almost everyone had many children and when mortality, infant and otherwise, was much higher, such a term would have applied to almost everyone.”

Digging a little deeper than the initial Google search, I found there has been a fair amount of discussion of the presence or absence in world languages of a word for bereaved parent. It’s been said that the Pennsylvania Dutch word zeitlang – originally, “longing” — has been adapted to to have this meaning. In Colum McCann’s short story “Sh’khol,” a translator tries in vain to find an English equivalent for  the Hebrew word in the title. “She looked in Russian, in French, in German, in other languages too, but could find analogues only in Sanskrit, vilomah, and in Arabic, thakla, a mother, mathkool, a father.”

Sh’khol originates in the book of Isaiah (47:9). In the English Standard translation, the “lover of pleasures” is addressed: “These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure.”

The reference to Sanskrit is interesting. The claim has also been made that santanhara is the proper word in the language for this circumstance. (I would be interested in the reactions of fluent speakers to this and the other examples.) Vilomah, meanwhile, is a Sanskrit word repurposed in 2009 by Karla Holloway, a Duke professor whose son died at the age of 22. She wrote that:

… children’s deaths inverted the natural order of things and forced their mothers and fathers to do the business of burying. That ought to have been the labor of a grown child, not a task for their parents. I have heard that there is a Chinese saying that the grey haired should not bury the black haired. Of course. It is an offense to the order of things.

Looking to Sanskrit, she says, she found vilomah, which “means ‘against a natural order.’ As in, the grey-haired should not bury those with black hair. As in our children should not precede us in death. If they do, we are vilomahed.”

The fact that vilomah made its way into Colum McCann’s short story suggests that Holloway’s neologism is catching on.

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