Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The astrophysical lexicon and liver shrinkage (crosspost from the Language Log)

On tonight's Daily Show, Jon's guest, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson1 remarked that astrophysical terminology was kept simple because the universe is complicated enough as it is:
What is a black hole? Matter is so dense, and has such a high gravity, that light travelling even at its tremendous speeds cannot escape. So it's dark, it's a black hole, and in astrophysics, we call it like we see it. It's black, it's a hole, it's a black hole. [laughter] We are simple people in astrophysics. (Jon: You are not simple people!) We are! Our lexicon -- spots on the sun? Sunspots! [laughter] No, I'm serious! The universe is complex enough! We don't want to lay down a lexicon to confuse the public, [who] try to follow what we do. The chemists do that! The medical doctors do that! Not in my field. (Jon: You are going to walk out of here tonight and get jumped by a gang of chemists.)

Of course, he's right that medical terminology, and most English scientific terminology in general, is Latin- (and Greek-)based, because Latin was the international language of learning when science was first getting going. (Modern astrophysics perhaps came along late enough in the game not to be bound by this convention.) Even in England, back in the day, English couldn't get no respect, at least as far as scientifically codifying the natural world went. As a consequence, English chemical, medical and biological terminology is generally opaque to nonspecialists, requiring particular effort or special training to understand natively.

This famously causes something of a distancing effect between patients and their problems: understanding the exact nature of our illnesses often involves an extended interview with the diagnostician, asking for precise explanations for what the diagnosis really mean, in lay terms. It's not that English lacks native or common terms for most relevant body parts or conditions (it would be a very odd language indeed that did), but rather that science doesn't use those terms, instead employing parallel Latin-based ones.

However, I've often wondered what the patient-doctor relationship feels like in other languages. In Romance languages like Spanish or Italian, the Latinate terminology presumably seems at least somewhat familiar, being cognate with the everyday terms for the relevant body parts.

An English speaker might be able to get something of a feel for what that must be like by looking at some German disease names, where the terms are often cognate with familiar English terms. Although it does employ plenty of Latinate medical terminology, German seems not to employ as much as English. For example, cardiovascular disease translates as Herz-Kreislauf-Erkrankung, 'heart circulation illness', according to this online dictionary.2 What if, instead of being told you had a fracture of the tibia, you instead heard you had a Schienbeinbruch, a 'shinbone break'? How would you feel if your doctor told you you had Lungenentzündung, 'lung inflammation', rather than pneumonia, or Leberschrumpfung 'liver shrinkage' rather than cirrhosis, or Sprachstörung, 'speech disorder', rather than aphasia? It feels different, doesn't it?

Does this sensation of semi-understanding mean that Germans and Italians have a less boggling experience when talking about their illnesses with their doctors? Perhaps patients are lulled into a false sense of understanding by the familiar terms, and skip the extended interview that would really let them know what's going on? Or perhaps they have a better understanding of what's going on, not needing an extended translation of even the most basic terminology? Or are doctors inscrutable the world over?3

1How's that for an anarthrous NP, eh?

2(Despite my given name) I don't actually speak any German, so I've relied entirely on this dictionary for the particular translations offered here.


Anonymous Kilian Hekhuis said...

I'm afraid having non-Latin, 'native' terms doesn't make that much of a difference. In Dutch (my mother tongue), most medical terms for 'every day' illnesses and body parts, organs, etc. are understandable Dutch (hart- en vaatziekten, scheenbeenbreuk, longontsteking, spraakgebrek), but does that really help understanding what they mean? I'm afraid not. What kind of illness is a 'heart and bloodvessel illness'? What exactly is an 'infection'? What defect comprises a 'speech defect'? Without background information, you know just as little having words you understand lexically or when you can make out the words that form the compound, as when these words are ununderstandable Latin. I doubt whether a Dutch speaking person has a different association with 'longontsteking' than an English speaking person with 'pneumonia'.

2:15 AM  
Anonymous Peter Corbett said...

German also has Germanic names for chemicals (I'm a chemist, who's being turned into a computational linguist). It's very noticeable on the bottles: you see "hydrochloric acid" in English, similar words in French and other languages, and "Salzsäure" - "salt-acid" as the lone exception. This means very little unless you know all about the chemistry of salt and of acids already.

2:54 AM  
Anonymous Mark Etherton said...

It is sometimes clearer to have something described in the vernacular. I remember going a few years ago to an optician in Vienna to be told something like "Herr Etherton, sie haben, wie wir auf Deutsch sagen, Alterssichtigkeit." (ie, more or less, "You have what we call in German old man's eyes") - rather more direct than "presbyopia".

3:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, german doctors learn the latin names, too, and most will insist on using them.
so, being a native german speaker who never learned latin, I was quite happy to be able to trace back a diagnosis of "Tonsillitis" to "Mandelentzündung" (inflammation of the tonsils) via the english word ...

3:56 AM  
Blogger John Cowan said...

In addition, some of the etymologies are flat wrong. Lavoisier assigned the name "oxygen" (born from acid) to the element he thought was present in all acids, and this was duly rendered in German as "Sauerstoff". Unfortunately, oxygen is not present in all acids, and the German name is now actively misleading, whereas the English and French names are at least opaque and don't induce further confusion.

5:06 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Astronomy may be good at avoiding dead languages, but its jargon - even the term "black hole" - is still pretty arbitrary. A black hole is most certainly not a hole. Astronomers use a completely different definition of the word "metal". Their definition of "giant star" has little to do with size. Though if Tyson was referring to the use of English, he had a point.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Doug Sundseth said...

Astrophysics jargon is no more transparent than medical jargon. For example, "Quasar" isn't exactly the stuff of kindergarten discourse, and it doesn't especially help to know that a quasar can be either a QSO or a QSS.

"Light year" isn't bad (in spite of the common confusion with a measure of time), but it isn't really used by astrophysicists. The unit is the "parsec". Again, this isn't at all transparent. Telling the uninitiated that this just means "the distance at which a stationary* object would have a PARallax of one SECond of arc" doesn't really help much.

We will mostly leave aside the way that astrophysicists recently decided that their style guide should control what the rest of us refer to as a "planet". We will not, however, leave aside the absurd set of suggestions they offered for these QPOs**.

Oh, and it's perhaps reasonable to mention that "black holes" are neither black nor holes, so even that example is pretty weak.

I hope the guy didn't injure himself while patting himself on the back; astrophysics has jargon as obscure as that in any other technical field.

* Remembering that when there is by definition no preferred rest frame, the concept of "stationary" is pretty much meaningless.

** Quasi-planetary objects.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Doug Sundseth said...

Apologies for the repeat about "black holes". I was called away in the middle of composing and didn't notice the comment before publishing.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Lance said...

You know, strictly speaking, whether I'd prefer my doctor to tell me I have "a speech disorder" or "aphasia" depends on which words the aphasia is affecting...

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Peter Corbett said...

John Cowan's right - to illustrate the confusion, there's no Sauerstoff in Salzsäure.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Brett said...

And while we're on about jargon in astrophysics, I'm reminded of Geoff Pullum's post on Language Log

10:05 AM  
Blogger MCGreco said...

"In Romance languages like Spanish or Italian, the Latinate terminology presumably seems at least somewhat familiar, being cognate with the everyday terms for the relevant body parts."

Actually, it isn't. Or at least the terms are cognate in the technical sense of having the same origin, but they are not recognizable. Portuguese "cardíaco", Spanish and Italian "cardiaco" don't have any clear relationship with "coração", "corazón" or "cuore", respectively. You have to be told that it is related to "heart".

Most of the medical terms were coined from the 16th century onwards from Classical Latin ("os" > "oral"), while body part names in Romance often came from Vulgar Latin ("bucca", mouth).
"Oral" isn't remotely similar to "boca" (mouth). Nor is "ótico" clearly related to "ouvido" (ear) or "óptico" to "olho" (eye). The fact that "óptico" and "ótico" are often pronounced and sometimes written the same in Brazil makes things even more confusing.

10:12 AM  
Anonymous John O'Laughlin said...

Many here would already know it, but Poul Anderson's Uncleftish Beholding is a fun read along these lines.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Colin Batchelor said...

Peter (hello Peter) has got to chemistry in German first, so I'll fall back on Estonian grammar in Estonian.

The Estonian names for the Estonian local cases (seesütlev, seestütlev, alaleütlev and so on) all contain the case endings, so it's a lot easier than trying to remember which is the elative and which is the ablative.

The non-local cases get simple calques of the international names, so essive becomes olev, terminative rajav and so forth. I don't know how they teach the case names for Russian and German.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous David Marjanović said...

As a native speaker of German (only German, unfortunately), I have to mention that doctors will gladly use terms like Fraktur, as the anonymous commentator has mentioned. I once saw a detective movie where this was used as a gag: the forensic doctor mentioned the Carotis, and when the detectives didn't understand, it took him 10 seconds to think of the synonym Halsschlagader. (The carotid artery is the big one that leads up into the head.)

When it gets specific, doctors of course don't use cover terms like Sprachstörung, but e. g. Wernicke-Aphasie. For obvious reasons, only rather basic chemicals have German names, too. So, all in all, German is not much more transparent than English here.

BTW, could you restore the dots to Sprachstörung? It's a lucky coincidence that the word without the dots happens not to exist.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous David Marjanović said...

I don't know how they teach the case names for Russian and German.

My Russian dictionary uses Russian names for the cases.

In German, the cases tend to be numbered rather than named (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th = nominative, genitive, dative, accusative; Latin: 5th = vocative, 6th = ablative; Russian: 5th = instrumental, 6th = prepositional), but the Latin names are all in use, too, and are used alone in more technical contexts. -- There is at least one elementary school textbooks that tries to combine the interrogative pronouns with the loan translation for "case" to arrive at Werfall, Wesfall, Wemfall, Wenfall, but these are neologisms that can't be more than 10 years old.

3:01 PM  
Blogger hh said...

David M -- thanks for the note about the dots! I've fixed 'em. Sorry about that!

best, hh

4:40 PM  
Blogger Carl Johnson said...

Japanese is in between. Vocubularily, it is to Chinese as English is to Latin/Greek, but the writing system collapses those differences. Example:

Everyday, ordinary word for heart: kokoro.
Written: 心
Pseudo-Chinese for heart: Shin
Also written: 心-.

"(My) heart stopped!"
"kokoro ga tomatta!"

"(It was a) cardiac arrest."
"shin-tei-shi deshita."

So, it's like if we wrote ♥ for both "heart" and "cardiac," and we had to tell the difference based on context clues. This means for Japanese, the medical terms are more opaque when spoken, but less opaque when written out.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Q. Pheevr said...

True story: A linguist (who also took Latin in high school) goes to see a dermatologist—

Linguist: I have this rash around my mouth.
Dermatologist: Looks like perioral dermatitis.
Linguist: That's what I said.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous abi said...

If the medical terms are really just things like "old man's eyes" or "speech disorder", they have the benefit of being superficially more transparent... but in any complex professional discourse, there are apparently ordinary words that are used in a very specialized sense, such that their ordinary meaning doesn't give much guidance at all.

I know this is true in much of contemporary analytic philosophy (my field) -- when we use terms like "event", "identical", or "necessary", we mean very, very specific, often non-intuitive, things. Students have a terrible time with this at first, because it's not clear which terms are jargon terms and which are safe to read in their ordinary sense.

I can imagine this creating even more alienation of patients from doctors, more chances for misunderstanding. (Though I can see it going the way you suggest, too)

10:15 PM  
Blogger Gheuf said...

If I remember correctly, Hofstadter discusses this same issue in his Le Ton Beau de Marot, when he wonders if Chinese people feel differently about dinosaurs because over there they are called "scary lizards" or whatever. Of course, just because you recognize the parts of the name doesn't mean you understand the concept, as a lot of people have pointed out. But on the other hand, sometimes you WOULD, and I half suspect it is merely for intimidation purposes that doctors say "clavicle" for "collar-bone", "presbyopia" for "old eyes", "tachycardia" for "fast heartbeat", or, my favorite, "substantia nigra", which sounds so much more professional than "black stuff".

So far no one's mentioned the opposite case -- when a compound is made up of perfectly obvious elements but you STILL fail to recognize them. For example, a lot of people probably say "newspaper" without reflecting that it is a paper on which the news is written.... Or "raincoat" without thinking it is a "coat for the rain".... I'm sure better examples could be thought up.

Cardiaco, Otico and Optico fail to sound like the Romance words for heart, ear and eye because they come from Greek and not from Latin.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the more egregious examples of this is Strachey's translation of Freud, who used rletaively commmon words to describe the elements of his theory. I quote from an essay in The Spectator:

"Freud's scientistic aspect is enhanced for the English reader by James Strachey's absurd translation. To render Das Ich, Das Über-Ich and Das Es as Ego, Super-ego and Id is to give a medicine-chest aspect to these idioms, even though they are fairly straightforward borrowings from German philosophy. When Freud tells us that the libido 'enters' or 'occupies' (besetze) some object, Strachey tells us that it 'cathects' that thing, and 'cathexis' then spreads across the page like a dangerous disease. It is very hard for the reader to reach through this armoured idiom to the often poetic, and invariably fanciful, description of the human being that Freud was constructing."

8:36 PM  
Anonymous David Marjanović said...

if Chinese people feel differently about dinosaurs because over there they are called "scary lizards" or whatever.

"Scary dragons".

I'm impressed how Freud's pseudoscience was translated into Latin and Greek instead of into English! Especially given that Freud in some place explicitely wrote he wanted to keep it simple rather than hide behind unnecessary jargon.

That said, how would "the Above-I" sound to you? Would that still be English? Are you comfortable with creating prefixes like that?

3:47 PM  
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