Jul 28, 2008

"Imperfect mapping" meme

One of the many challenges we must face as language learners is that there is no such thing as a perfect one-to-one mapping between any two languages, i.e. it is always the case that Language X will have a single word that encapsulates a given concept Z, whereas Language Y might need a couple of words or a paraphrase to capture the essence of the same concept Z.

So I'm proposing a little "meme", and the rules are simple. Take any language that you are studying/have studied (Language X), and take a concept that is in the form of individual words compared to our Language Y, English, where you would need to paraphrase the concept.

For example, I'll use Korean, Indonesian (my language Xs), and English (language Y) to illustrate "rice stages".

Korean: 밥, 쌀, 벼
Indonesian: nasi, beras, padi
English: cooked rice, milled/hulled uncooked rice, rice on stalk.

Notice that English does not have individual words for these concepts - English speakers have to paraphrase using the common thread "rice".

I think we'll learn a lot about how different languages encode concepts present in the world.


Nicholas Cripps said...

Hey Ed,

I'll add some words in the same order as you listed them...

Japanese: ご飯 Gohan、米 Kome、稲 Ine
Tagalog: Kanin, Bigas, Palay

Not sure about Chinese,
Cooked rice is definitely 米飯 mǐfàn, but I think uncooked rice and rice on stalk are the same 稲 dào.

Theresa said...

yes. in chinese it's


Theresa said...

sorry i have a question.

does English not have a word for rice, uncooked rice, etc because rice is not their staple food? whereas Asians have a word for these because it's our staple food.

Ed said...


Yes, that does seem to be the case.

Any others you can think of?

Oh, if anyone can think of an example where English is Language X and some other language were Language Y, that would also be good. Like, for example:

English: breakfast, lunch, dinner
Indonesian: Makan pagi, makan siang, makan malam
Korean: 아침 먹다, 점심 먹다, 저녁 먹다.

This seems to be because of the types of food served during these meals.

Theresa said...


I realise that while the English have a particular word for "breakfast", "lunch", and "dinner", the Asians don't have that kinda thing!

In Mandarin it's also "吃早餐,吃午餐,吃晚餐" which means "eat morning's meal, eat afternoon's meal, eat night's meal"!


Theresa said...

Can this be considered?

English: rain, shower, drizzle
Chinese: 下雨 (rain),下大雨 (rain big rain),下小雨/下毛毛雨 (rain small rain)

Ed said...


Yes, that's great!

maxiewawa said...

When I first read this post I couldn't think of anything, but this is quite a sensitive one:

English: Korea, North Korea, South Korea

S. Korea: ???

N. Korea: ???

I think Changye from CPod summed it up the best: