Follow-ups (follows-up?)

I don’t know how the weather is wherever you are, but here in chilly Detroit the roads are atrocious and there are accidents everywhere. So stay safe. In the department of Great Minds Cogitating on Similar Subjects, two posts from the blogosphere this morning:

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman, in ‘No word for fair?’, discusses whether the words fair and unfair are translatable to languages other than English, and what this implies for concepts of fairness cross-culturally. The post focuses particularly on the work of Anna Wierzbicka, whose claim that fair has historically been contrasted with foul rather than unfair shares some conceptual ground with my recent post, ‘An unshort answer to an unsimple question‘.

At Confessions of a Community College Dean, which is one of the most interesting and well-written blogs on the nuts and bolts of academic life, The Bookstore Conundrum is a post discussing the campus bookstore industry and its relationship to academic textbook choices. In my post, Textbooks, schmextbooks, I had focused primarily on the pedagogical issues, and secondarily on the cost to students. But the issue can also be conceptualized in the broader economic framework of institutional economic well-being.

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4 Comments

  1. One of the most interesting bits of modern Hebrew slang that’s arisen in Israel is the phrase “זה לא פיר,” pronounced [ze lo fer]. “זה לא” means “it is not” and “פיר” is quite simply just transliterated “fair,” and the phrase is heard by snotty kids everywhere protesting their parents not buying them an ice cream.

    Granted, it’s a direct loanword, but it’s still Hebrew, and it can still be translated.

  2. Sol: Yes! The existence of loanwords (in every known human language, ever) is absolutely the #1 problem with the ‘can’t be translated’ argument. Human beings are remarkably flexible in adopting and adapting from other people in their social networks, including speakers of different languages.

  3. Franz deWaal demonstrated that monkeys have concepts of social equity. When some monkeys receive grapes (boss!) and others receive cucumbers (boo!), the cucumber-receivers will throw the cucumbers at their feeders, rather than adhering to a strictly biological needs for calories. (Also, chimps might kill you if you bring one chimp a birthday cake, and nothing for the others, but that story is not as cute.)

    I think fairness as a concept is something that is understood by primates that live in social settings. Whether such a concept is codified in one word or phrase does not distract from the idea that when one lives in a social group, the benefits of sharing resources need to outweigh the costs of not getting all the resources to yourself in the first place.

  4. Lindsay: Yes, you are quite right: there does appear to be a pan-human (and beyond) interest in equity. And to be fair to Wierzbicka, I don’t think that she is arguing that the lack of the word ‘fair’ implies no concept of fairness whatsoever. This is the sort of ‘strong’ linguistic relativity that virtually no one believes. But she does endorse the idea that linguistic patterns can tell us something about cross-cultural differences in values, emotions, and ideals. But once you’re done Semantics, Culture and Cognition, you can let me know what you think.

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