Years ago I got to know an SIL/Wycliffe translator-missionary who described the “color wheel” of a particular Amazon jungle tribe. (This was at a translation conference so I’ve heard several other scholars retelling this same story. It is such a great illustration!) Every culture names and categorizes colors a bit differently, and that greatly complicates translation. This Amazon had many words distinguishing different shades of green and brown. It had just one word for blue, mostly applied to descriptions of the sky. All other colors were lumped together under one label, a word roughly meaning “other color”, because in their world they didn’t see a lot of non-green, non-brown, and non-blue colors.
Then one day a long dugout canoe filled with a huge pile of clothing came to the village. An itinerant peddler had bought a cargo-container’s load of miscellaneous clothes from the USA. These were the leftovers which even dollar stores and Salvation Army thrift shops couldn’t sell. These were miscellaneous articles of clothing of every possible color, pattern, shape, and fabric.
The merchant carried the clothes in baskets to the center of the village, making one big pile of garments. Then he explained to the locals the terms of sale or barter and that their children could help them find their selections. A chaotic scramble began which probably rivaled a Black Friday Sale at a major box store on the day after Thanksgiving. Little kids were digging through the big pile of clothing, pulling out the most eye-catching colors and patterns. Meanwhile, their parents were shouting instructions which struggled to describe the specific articles of clothing they most wanted to buy: “Grab the blood-colored one!” [brown-red shirt], “Take the sun-child hat!” [yellow hat] , “Pull on that inside-of-dog-ear one!” [pinkish skirt], I want the spotted-fish one" [a dappled paisley shirt], and “Pick the bower-bird’s nest!” [a complex striped green, brown, and black Nehru jacket.] The missionary observed all of this excitement and realized that the parents were scrambling to expand their language’s color-wheel of words much as their children were scrambling to claim the most desirable articles of colorful clothing.
This missionary-translator said that it only took a few monthly visits of the clothing peddler for the color vocabulary of this tribe to grow in specificity and richness to meet the demands of living with their new-found fashions! What would sometimes begin as a long series of words describing the complex patterns and colors of a paisley shirt would with time get reduced to something succinct, such as the two words their language used to describe the leftover pile of nutria bones remaining on a plate after a meal.
I loved the translator’s story because it illustrates the dynamism of human language. And despite popular misunderstandings, any “lack of a word” in a language quickly gets remedied when the culture has sufficient reason to address that “gap” in its ability to describe something in its world. In other words, if people need to be able to refer to something, their language will quickly rise to that need!
Therefore, while it is true that a language can have difficulties expressing particular thoughts, that difficulty usually won’t last for long if the need arises for such expression.
@swamidass, this one could be filed under a “Language & Culture” category.