Victor Steinbok has been collecting “no words for X” claims recently; here’s a find in Japanese:
To regain a sense of control over your body take the following steps: become an informed consumer, consider experimenting with lifestyle changes, and connect with a qualified physician who shares your view that perimenopause is not a disease, but a transition from one phase of our lives to another. Each woman experiences this time in her own way. It is interesting how differently women in other cultures experience these times. For example, Japanese women report fewer menopausal symptoms, and have no word for hot flashes. It is suspected that this may in part be related to their high consumption of soy-containing foods. (link)
Victor noted that hot flashes actually isn’t a word in English, but a two-word phrase; that the implication of the piece is that there’s no concept of ‘hot flashes’ in Japanese; and that “it may also be that the unidentified author is simply misinformed”. I was immediately suspicious of the claim, and consulted Yoshiko Matsumoto, who is not only a Japanese linguist but also the editor of Faces of Aging: The Lived Experiences of the Elderly in Japan (Stanford Univ. Press, 2011).
I’ll get right to Yoshiko’s reply, and then track back to other issues in this report:
It’s interesting to know that Japan and the Japanese language are still exotic culture and language in some people’s mind. I don’t know whether Japanese women report fewer menopausal symptoms than American women, but almost the most common symptoms mentioned in relation to menopause are NOBOSE, HOTERI, which are equivalents of hot flashes. NOBOSE (from the verb NOBOSERU) refers to dizziness caused by high temperature and HOTERI (from the verb HOTERU) is hot flash/flush. The latter can be used in any situation when you (mainly your cheeks) feel unreasonably hot, but can refer to the particular flush associated with menopause. When I lived in Japan as a young person, I had no such concerns(!), but I knew that these were typical symptoms of menopause, as I heard these words mentioned pretty commonly.
So much for the factual claim. On to other issues.
Hot flashes as a “word”. Some time ago, on Language Log, I took up the question of what should count as a “word” when we’re asking whether a language “has a word for” some concept. What I argued for there was olfesc: an ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency. (In many contexts — clasically, in discussions of color words — we need to add a restriction to basic vocabulary.)
Now, hot flashes is certainly an olfesc in English. In particular, it’s a fixed expression, a semantically opaque phrase that deserves an entry in any dictionary of the language. OED3 (Sept. 2008) has an entry for hot flash, and also one for hot flush, noting that
With reference to menopausal symptoms, hot flashes is the usual term in the United States, hot flushes that in the United Kingdom.
No words or too many. There is still a difference between Japanese and English: each variety of English has one olfesc in this conceptual concept, but Japanese has two. Such differences between languages have been made much of in popular discussions of language and culture. From “No words, or too many” by Mark Liberman on Language Log:
The fact that languages differ somewhat in the generality of their semantic categories can be spun in several different ways — if your terminology is more specific than mine, perhaps this is because you’re not yet advanced enough to see the crucial generalization; on the other hand, if it’s more general, perhaps this is because you haven’t yet learned to make the needed distinctions. This “heads I win, tails you lose” approach is featured in all its ironic glory by Herbert Spencer in The Principles of Sociology, 1893. On p. 354 …
That is, the language with more distinctions is criticized as overdifferentiated (lacking in abstract thought), the language with fewer as underdifferentiated (failing to discriminate).
The source of the claim about Japanese. As Victor noted, the author of the passage about menopause is unidentified, and in fact I’ve been unable to find out who puts the News Olio site (“News and Interesting Facts”), where the passage comes from, together. It looks like an aggregation site, but without attributions to its sources.
“No words for X” on Language Log. The “no words for X” meme (which takes several different forms) has been a preoccupation of the Language Loggers for years. The most recent posting is from March 4th: Mark Liberman on Jerome Kagan on personality words in English vs. Japanese. (Japanese comes up frequently in these discussions; it’s both familiar and exotic.)
Mark posted an archive of LLog postings on the meme in 2009, and has recently updated it through January 2nd of this year. Available here, it’s an impressively long list. Four postings since then:
1/9/12: Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
3/7/12: No Arabic word for bluff?
And on this blog:
3/18/11: Thingy words
2/2/11: No word for X