Edward Sapir, left, would consider English and Klingon not "sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality."note On the other hand, Worf, Son of Mogh, has little time for linguistic niceties.
"In the language of the Ordos, there are no words for the concepts of 'trust' or 'honour'. There are more than three hundred for the concept of 'profit'."
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that a person's language, through its vocabulary and structure, shapes the way that person perceives reality, thinks and behaves. In Real Life this theory is very controversial; it comes in a semi-infinite variety of interpretations, some of which are trivially false ("if you don't have a word for it you can't think about it"), some trivially true ("it's a lot easier to speak intelligibly about things you've got words for"), and many untested, possibly untestable.note Hypotheses in science are defined as being testable and falsifiable. That means none of these things count as hypotheses until you've come up with an experiment to test them with. People go right on saying "hypothesis" when they mean "conjecture," linguists get really mad, nobody learns anything, and We Keep Using That Word anyway. Regardless, this makes for an interesting device in fiction, particularly for characterizing a Planet of Hats through their vocabulary (grammatical structures can also indicate a certain way of thought, but vocabulary is easier to write about without a comprehensive background in linguistics). For instance, one can characterize a very warlike race by saying that they have no words for "peace" or "surrender"; conversely, the inhabitants of a pacifist Mary Suetopia may lack a word for "war" or "hate".note In Real Life, of course, you get inconvenient facts like that the Apache—whose 19th-century economy was 40% goods taken in armed raids—have no words for "war" or "raiding", they just call them, respectively, "killing strangers" and "robbing strangers".
This sort of thing also shows up frequently on lists of Little Known Facts, the most common version being "the Eskimos have [some large number] words for snow" (they don't, by the waynote English may actually have more words for frozen water). (On the other hand, Americans do have a large number of words for "being drunk."note However, many of these words are regional slang words, and may not be recognized as meaning "being drunk". For example, an English-speaking person from outside the United States might interpret the use of the phrase "totally wasted" not to mean "really drunk", but rather "thin and starving", or the more literal "wasting his life." Meanwhile, Americans would count "totally pissed" in the words for "really angry" rather than in the words for "really drunk", like the British do. )
The idea that language equals thought also raises the possibility of a novel form of Mind Control — restricting people's thoughts by forcing a different language on them. A limited form of which is the staple of Real Life propaganda — aggressive promotion of "proper" terms for the same things, such as when followers of a particular leader always refer to him by an evocative nickname. If you meet aliens speaking a Starfish Language, you may be in for some truly strange psychology. Black Speech is a related trope, in which the sound of a language reflects some aspect of the speakers' character.
Note that a common subversion is that the language has some terminology for the concept. It could be more clunky — the Proud Warrior Race might explain peace being 'time after fighting', or more humorously 'a long period of time in which you and your allies are not fighting your enemies and their allies, and in which it is acceptable to trade for needed goods and attend the same social gatherings without fighting'. Or it might be outright borrowed from another language which already has a word for it (a common occurrence in real life languages). It still gets across the point that the concept is not one encountered commonly in a culture, but does not make them look like complete morons. After all, it should be possible to describe any concept in any language — it's just that some languages might require a very long description where others use a single word. Another subversion is that they have no words for something very familiar to them — "they have no words for war... because they've never stopped warring long enough to think about it".
Also note that most instances of this trope implicitly equate languages with their words, which is a failure to understand even basic linguistics. Linguists see languages as grammars, systems of rules according to which people can form complex expressions (sentences, phrases, words) out of smaller, discrete parts (morphemes, phonemes). The more solid versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are about how grammar, not words, influence thought. People consciously invent new words or adopt foreign ones all the time, in an offhand manner without any effort, which in Real Life enormously weakens the "they can't think X because they have no word for X" trope. People, on the other hand, rarely consciously invent new grammatical tenses for their language, much less invent new obligatory grammatical rules for things like evidentiality.
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The Chimera Ant King Meryem from Hunter × Hunter, after becoming a Well-Intentioned Extremist, tells Netero that his new goal is to make all humanity so equal that the word "equality" will no longer have any meaning.
Angelic language in A Certain Magical Index. When angels try to express certain concepts, it comes out as incomprehensible gibberish. This is apparently because those concepts cannot be accurately explained using any human language. Best seen when Aiwass is discussing it's "birth" into the world. "Although, 'born' is not quite the right word. It would be more accurate to say $@#$*(&?... damn, the language cannot keep up. Let us say 'appeared'. That's not quite accurate, but I can't express it any better than that."
This trope is lampshaded in Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, after it's mentioned that the Romans decimated (i.e., killed every tenth person—though in actual Roman times this was reserved for executing deserters, but Rule of Funny reigns in this case) Athens:
Greek Woman: How many languages even have a word for "killed every 10th person?"
Subverted in JLA, in one issue of Grant Morrison's run. Mad scientists T.O. Morrow and Dr. Ivo decide to find out which one of them is the better scientist by creating an android super-hero named Tomorrow Woman to invade the League and then destroy it. Morrow (in charge of the brain while Ivo was in charge of the body) deliberately leaves the word "freedom" out of her vocabulary. Despite this, when the time for her to destroy the JLA, she defies her very programming, making a Heroic Sacrifice to save the other members of the JLA. When Superman asks her remains why she did that in the last seconds of her activation, she says "word not present in vocabulary". Showing his true character as a scientist (if a mad one) T.O. Morrow was so thrilled by his creation's transcendence of her programming that he didn't mind being arrested (though it's also likely that he's just happy that he "won" the dispute)
Morrison also uses this a number of times in The Invisibles. As an example, Key 17 is a drug that causes people to hallucinate whatever a word is whenever they read it. For instance, reading the word "dad" will cause a hallucination of your father to show up.
In Alan Moore's classic Green Lantern story "In Blackest Night", GL Katma Tui traveled through a starless expanse of space called the Obsidian Wastes to seek out a native on a planet in that region as a recruit for the Green Lantern Corps. The alien she discovered, Rot Lop Fan, is of a species that, due to there being no light in this sector of space, evolved without eyes. As a result, when Katma attempted to communicate with Fan her ring couldn't translate any words pertaining to vision, light or color, such as 'green', 'lantern', 'ray' or 'sight'. She got around this by retooling Rot's ring to respond to sound instead of color, and naming him "F-Sharp Bell".
In the Warren Ellis comic Ocean, some scientists find alien life forms in suspended animation under the frozen ocean of Europa (one of Jupiter's moons). One of the scientists is trying to figure out their language before an automatic program wakes them up...and when he does, he finds that they have thousands of words for "murder."
The Basalt City Chronicles: a race known as the Deltharians have no word for sound. This is because around 98% of the population has a genetic condition that renders them entirely deaf.
Discussed in the Knights of the Old Republic fanfic Destiny's Pawn. Kairi (the mind-wiped Revan) had been given a new identity as a linguist. Even Zhar is a little baffled by why she would rather use conventional language study rather than relying on the Force. And Kairi is frustrated by the Jedi Masters' lazy assumptions about Mandalorians partly because of her association with Canderous and partly because they haven't a single document in the Mandalorian language in the archives: "Language tells you how a culture thinks. Learn it, and you learn them."
In the Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle fanfic The Missing Worlds, Mokona normally provides automatic magical translation in every world they come to. But when the travelers come to an ocean world with no landmasses, the first mermaid they come across is stymied by concepts like 'dry' 'land' and 'drown.' They had a similar problem with the word 'feather' in a world with no birds; the word automatically translated into 'fin,' which was the analogous concept but failed to accurately describe the actual object.
The Star Trek Online fic Reality Is Fluid at one point has a Saurian ensign on the USS Bajor's bridge crew struggling to explain to her mammalian crewmates what color something is when you can see partway into the ultraviolet spectrum.
The people in The Invention of Lying have no word for the act of lying; the closest they get, throughout the film, is "saying something that isn't". Even the protagonist, who is the one who comes up with lying, can't think of a word for it.
Lampshaded in John Woo's Broken Arrow. "I don't know what's scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there's actually a term for it." This is Truth in Television, albeit a cheap joke relying upon the logical fallacy that only things that exist have terms for them. We have words covering everything from an erroneous transportation of a nuclear weapon (Bent Spear), the loss in transit or damage incurred to a nuclear weapon (Broken Arrow), the confirmed theft of a nuclear weapon (Empty Quiver), and incidents involving other nuclear power systems than weapons (Faded Giant). On the other hand we also have the term "nuclear winter" which happily we haven't yet experienced.
In Amistad, the translator is having trouble explaining the phrase "I should not have done that", because the tribe allegedly doesn't have a word equivalent to the English modal verb "should". Cinqué's explanation: "You either do something or you don't". So it ends up being translated as something like "I will fix this; I will do something", giving the Africans false hope.
In Galaxy Quest, the Thermians don't have a word, associated concept, or anything else for "acting" or "pretending," which explains why they thought that a TV show was a historical document. The closest they can come up with is "falsehood", a concept they only know from Sarris.
Dead Poets Society: Keating insists that the student must use rich language. "Very tired" is strictly forbidden — use "exhausted".
1984's Newspeak is the government's attempt to control how people think by changing the English language. Their goal is to make thoughts against the Party impossible due to an inability to put such thoughts into words. Many words are outright eliminated, and the meanings and connotations of other words are changed, so that even though you could still construct statements like "Big Brother is ungood" or "All men are equal", you'd have trouble explaining them; they would seem as absurd as the statement "All men are redhaired," and be rejected out of hand.
One such example is how in Newspeak, certain concepts can only be expressed in terms of their opposites. For example, bad becomes "ungood", warm becomes "uncold", and light becomes "undark". Once again, this is done to limit the expression of certain ideas and concepts. note Though the appendix at the end states in many cases, the deleted word was chosen at random.
In the Green-Sky Trilogy, the Kindar do not even have any word for things like violence, grief, or anger. The closest they have is "unjoyful" and "sorrow" is considered indecent language. Only the elite priesthood of the Ol-Zhaan are supposed to know the words or the concepts. This is all the better to control the population and "protect" them from the human tendency for violent or anti-social behavior.
In Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun the Ascians were only permitted to speak memorized phrases from Approved Texts. Anything else was not correct thought. Played out full throttle in the story told by Loyal to the Group of 17. This is slightly subverted, as Severian notes that Loyal to the Group of 17 is able to use the phrases to communicate meanings different from their original intention.
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany is built wholly around this trope. The smallest (and least spoilish) example is a race of aliens whose language is based almost entirely around temperature gradients but have no word for "house" — because of this, they build incomprehensible starships that look like a mass of strung-together boiled eggs. And of course, the titular language enables extremely fast thinking and enhanced spatial awareness. More relevant to this trope, that language has no words for "I" or "you" and thus twists the outlooks of those who speak it.
Witches Abroad uses this, with specific reference to the legend that the Inuit have twenty words for snow, by saying it's false. Similarly, dwarves don't have a hundred words for "rock". As per their obsession of mining, they have words describing the precise kind of rock — igneous, sedimentary, and that's just to start — but not one for just "rock". "Show a dwarf a rock and he sees, for example, an inferior piece of crystalline sulphite of barytes."
Vorbis (a powerful Omnian Quisitor), while visiting the Ephebian Tyrant to persuade them to surrender, notes that "slave" is an Ephebian word, and Omnians have no word for slave. The Tyrant replies "I imagine fish have no word for water."
Another character is a fisherman from a tiny tribe that has no word for "war", because they have no one to fight. When the gods appear and tell everyone (in their own languages) to stop waging war, his god has to explain, "Remember when Pacha Moj hit his uncle with big rock? Like that, only more worse." The fisherman complies, but can't understand why so many people would want to hit Pacha Moj's uncle with a rock.
Played straight with the D'regs. For one, that isn't their original name, but all their neighbors used the word for "enemy" and they adopted it out of pride. They use the same word for "stranger" and "target," mirroring how some Native American languages like Navajo or Apache use the same word for "foreigner" and "enemy." Oh, and their word for "freedom" is the same as their word for "fighting".
Vimes: They certainly make their language do a lot of work, don't they?
In Hogfather, Death has difficulty explaining to his granddaughter exactly what happened to the Discworld's version of Santa Claus, because there is no precisely accurate human word for it (essentially, the Hogfather ceased to exist due to lack of belief). He eventually settles on "Gone."
In The Colour of Magic, there is a mention of Black Oroogu, a language containing "no nouns, and only one adjective, which is obscene." We never see its speakers, but there are presumably either not many of them left or, um, quite a few of them.
Interesting Times: In the language of the xenophobic Agatean Empire, the word for "foreigner" is the same as the word for "ghost", and very close to the word for "victim". Truth in Television here: in Real Life, a pejorative Chinese word for foreigners, Europeans specifically, is "lo fan", which means "white ghost".
Trolls have only one word for plants, because they don't have to interact with them — all plants can be squished if they are in the way, and they aren't needed for food, since trolls eat rock. In Moving Pictures, this leads to Detritus presenting his sweetheart with a large uprooted tree rather than the flowers she requested.
"Let me put forward another suggestion: That you are nothing more than a lucky species of ape that is trying to understand the complexities of creation via a language that evolved in order to tell one another where the ripe fruit was?"
Brought up in the narration, when Polly is talking to her friend about her odd behavior and possible miracles. The narration mentions that her language had no word for "freaky," but she would have welcomed its inclusion. She settles on calling it "strange."
There's also mention of a Borogravian folk song called "Plogviehze", which means "The Sun Has Risen, Let's Make War!" Vimes notes that it takes a very special history to get that into one word.
In Snuff, goblins' way of speaking initially makes them seem stupid. Miss Beedle later explains that their vocabulary and mode of thought simply doesn't translate well; for example, rather than naming lots of different colors, they name only a few but have lots of phrasings that express how they blend together.
In the allegorical fantasy novel Crown of the Dragon, there is a subversion: It takes place in a world divided into two countries, good and evil. The evil country is pretty much what you'd expect, but the good country has things like enforced mandatory smiling, and has wiped out all words with negative meanings. They can still say "not good" when they mean "bad", it's just heavily frowned upon. When the inevitable clash with the evil kingdom comes, they have to dig out ancient pages from forbidden works in order to fight the Black Prince's "scheming".
Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Dr. Mahmoud (a linguist) says that since the Martians don't have words for "war," "weapon" or "fighting," they aren't aggressive. He says: "If a word for a concept isn't in a language, then its culture simply doesn't have the referent the missing word would symbolize." However, this is subverted at the end when we learn that the Martians are more than capable of annihilating entire planets if they feel the need. Because the Martian civilization we see is so immensely powerful in terms of their longevity and psychic ability, they literally have no "weapons." They think things out of existence, and it happens. "War" and "fight" carry the implication that the other side could fight back and defeat you, whereas Martians have no need to describe anything between "peace" and "extermination".
Heinlein again, in Between Planets. Don Harvey is trying to decide who he can trust with a very important secret.
Mr. Costello: See here—I've studied comparative semantics—the whistling talk [of the dragons] does not even contain a symbol for the concept of falsehood. And what a person does not have symbols for he can't think about! Ask him, Mr. Harvey! Ask him in his own speech. If he answers at all, you can believe him.
This was first posed by Heinlein in his novella Gulf, which featured a one-phoneme-per-concept "Speedtalk." It's extremely interesting and has been written about by tons and tons of linguists.
An attempt at creating a speed talk-like language has been made. Ithkuil is listed under Starfish Language and described as "You Head A'splode, the Language."
In David Eddings's The Elenium setting, this pops up with the Troll language in the later trilogy, when the knights have a working alliance with the Trolls. Turns out the Trolls don't have a word for 'I'm sorry', 'I apologize', or even anything close to it, since a troll never does anything he's sorry for. In this case, it's not supposed to show them as particularly virtuous, but rather as childlike — or even animal-like — innocents.
In No Present Like Time, the language of the Rhydanne has no words for groups of people or plural verb forms. The Rhydanne are a race of asocial humanoids with catlike traits, for whom the natural unit of organization is the individual. Comet Jant Shira remarks that Rhydanne is a very good language in which to be antisocial.
In Outbound Flight, Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo tells Jorj Car'das that he's known among his people, the Chiss, for ...unusual tactics. The Chiss are Martial Pacifists and isolationists; they never strike first. Thrawn does strike first, against peoples that he thinks are a great enough future danger to the Chiss, and against peoples who might never threaten the Chiss but who are threatening the weaker cultures just outside of Chiss space. Thrawn seems mildly surprised when Car'das tells him that he's talking about making preemptive strikes, which is a new phrase to him, and tells the human that it's good to know that he's not the only one to consider the morality of striking first.
A Star Wars Magazine article on Mandalorians claims they have no word for "hero" — not because they have no concept of heroism, but because they take it for granted. The closest they come is the insult "hut'uun", which means "one who is not a hero". The article does claim "hero" means "prepared to die for your family and friends, or what you hold dear", which has historically been most cultures' idea of "dignified behavior", not "hero" (which tends to involve, as mentioned in the formula of many military honors, "above and beyond").
Mando'a also does not have gendered pronouns or make any difference between "friend" and "sibling." If you've seen enough battles with a Mando, you might as well be his brother. The culture also has a proverb that translates to "family is more than blood"
The Jedi Path is treated as an in-universe Jedi Academy textbook, and characters have scribbled notes in its margins. In the part about lightsaber combat, Darth Sidious highlights the word used in sparring for "surrender" and brags that the Sith need no such words.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself parodies this trope in its discussion about the Shaltanac race of Broop Kidron XIII, whose only equivalent to the expression "the other man's grass is always greener" is "the other Shaltanac's joopleberry shrub is always a more mauve-y shade of pinky russet." The Guide concludes that "the best way not to be unhappy is not to have a word for it."
And then plays with it in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, with lorry driver Rob McKenna. He refers to the 50-words-for-snow idea, and ups it with meticulously describing over 200 types of rain—and, aside from the multiple Inuit/Eskimo/guys who live north language issue, does it for the same reasons.
In Gulliver's Travels, the eponymous Gulliver comes upon the Houyhnhnms, a race of sentient horses who live in a simplistic Utopian society and are relatively naive about the evils of the world; for example, they lack a word for "lie". To describe the concept, they refer to "saying the thing which is not".
In Three Worlds Collide by Eliezer Yudkowsky, the alien Baby Eaters have more children than they can support and eat the excess. Their word for "to be moral" is the same as their word for "to eat babies." The Super Happy People from the same story think and communicate by exchanging DNA, so their words (or rather, their DNA codes) for "to have sex" and "to talk" are the same.
A few of the Known Space stories by Larry Niven mention that the (extinct) Tnuctipun didn't have a word for intelligent aliens; their close equivalent roughly translated to "food that talks".
Louis Wu's Kzin friend, a translator at the UN, has a job title (he hasn't made a name for himself yet) that literally translates as "Speaker-to-Animals". He usually renders it as "interspecies translator", of course, but when he's annoyed he uses the literal version, to be insulting. (Although Louis, obviously not insulted, calls him "Speaker" throughout.)
Kzinti language contains numerous registers (mislabeled "tenses") for interaction between different classes. Anything spoken in the Dominant Tense is automatically an insult (and anything in the Dominated Tense is an apology), and using the Imperative Tensenote not the Ultimate Imperative Tense, mind you, just the regular one means "Obey instantly or be torn to pieces." Technically, registers aren't tenses, but doing the research on theoretical linguistics was a lot harder when there was no Internet.
One story mentions that kzinti have no word for "peace" (they don't have coexisting equals, only masters and vassals) and that to many kzinti, the word "peace" actually means "human victory" because that's the only situation where people talk about it.
In Callahan's Legacy, the alien creature the gang nicknames "The Lizard" has 360-degree vision, its three eyes spaced around its body. This comes into play when they're trying to talk with it. Though it doesn't trust them...
Jake Stonebender: As Mary had pointed out, the three-eyed Lizard did not have a blind spot, had in its experience no analogs for such biped binocular concepts as "sneak up on," "behind your back," "blindside," or "backstab"—and hence was just a little less paranoid than a human would have been. They obviously had concepts for "Trap Door" and "Death from Above", however.
The Culture apparently invokes this intentionally with 'Marain', their official language, which in-universe was created from whole cloth around the time of the Culture's foundation. Some of the Narrators take time in their 'Translation Notes' to lambast such 'barbaric' concepts as gender-specific pronouns, for example. This is a plot point in The Player of Games; Marain is contrasted against Azadian, which Gurgeh learns in order to understand his opponents better. Before his last match, his drone deliberately engages him in conversation in Marain in order to help him think with more of a Culture perspective again, which proves to be the key to the game.
In Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Mars is colonized by a multinational team that ends up speaking a mixture of Arabic and Russian. Arabic because it has the best words for describing the landscape, and Russian because it has the best words for describing grim perseverance in the face of a terrible climate and political situation.
The Marat had no word for lying until they started talking to Alerans. The closest they got was someone being mistaken, and accusing someone of being "intentionally mistaken" can result in a lethal duel. The protagonist eventually tells his Marat companion to simply use the word "falsehood," in order to avoid confusion with the other meanings of the word "lie."
Jack Vance's SF novel The Languages of Pao, where the plot centered around a project to completely change the culture of a planet by replacing their native language with created languages specifically designed to shape their thought patterns. It is worth noting that the project ultimately fails miserably with a switch to a language that's a blend of all the created languages, likely making it a deconstruction.
Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life" focuses on the challenges two linguists face when trying to learn and understand the language of a radially symmetric alien species. Since any direction they are facing can be considered "forward," their culture and language lack a detailed conception of linearity.
C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner sequence is this trope in spades. The Atevi have a language with a numerical basis and have the idea of 'felicitous numbers', so every sentence has to be constructed to reflect not only the actual numbers of people you are talking to, but amended so as not to insult. This makes the introduction of computers etc exciting, since some Atevi think they are being cursed by infelicitous numbers. They also have a different emotional structure, stated to be hardwired biology — they have no exact word for 'friend', but it is a lot more complicated than that. The biggest problem is that they so nearly look like humans, and a big part of the issue is that humans still think that one day they'll 'get' human concepts and loosen up. Despite the fact that this precise misunderstanding nearly led to an extinction event once before...
Old Solar in C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy has no words for 'bad' or 'evil' or 'sin' or 'war' or... pretty much anything else that doesn't exist in the sinless society of the aliens; due to not having the spiritual Fall that Earth did (this is extended to the rest of the universe as well, Earth being unique in that regard). In the first book, Ransom tries to translate the villain Weston's speech into Old Solar and has to take an entire sentence for almost every word of Weston's. Eventually he just gives up and has to inform Oyarsa that there is no way to translate Weston's diatribe.
In the second book, the hero discovers to his surprise that there is actually a word for "evil" in the unfallen language (in the first book, he had to make do with the euphemism "bent"). Apparently it's a very advanced concept, and he'd just never run across the word on Mars.
In The Lord of the Rings, the elves do not appear to have a word for "magic," since it's such an intrinsic part of themselves and their world that they do not distinguish between it and what we would consider "natural" phenomena. They do however, have a word for witchery: gul. They seem a bit perturbed that the hobbits use the same word for the skills and abilities of the elves and the deceptions of Sauron. Galadriel herself even directly invokes Clarke's Third Law when discussing her mirror with Frodo and Sam.
In Star Trek: Klingon Empire the IKS Gorkon find a planet with such an intense warrior culture that the universal translator cannot convert "peace" into a concept that makes sense to them. Klingons being Klingons, they consider this a fairly strong point in favour of the Children of San-Tarah.
This is how the people with soft-cypher chips manage to get around Korozhet mind control in Rats, Bats and Vats. The Korozhet language has one word for every possible concept they've ever thought of, and one word only. The elasticity of the English language means that native English speakers can think of alternative terms to think of their masters by, which they are not programmed to unconditionally love.
The same trope gets displayed in the speaking habits, and thusly personalities, of the genetically engineered rodent warriors. Rats, who talk in Ye Olde Englishe and name themselves after various Shakespearean villain characters, are a race of Loveable Rogues who spit on most human forms of honor, are only interested in food, drink and sex, casually steal whatever they fancy and have sex whenever they feel like it. Bats, meanwhile, speak with an Oireland accent and use Oireland names, and are also politically fractious, ever-speechifying types who are big on unity and brotherhood and taking the fight to the "oppressors". Rats were given language training out of Shakespeare plays, whilst Bats used "Wobbly" song lyrics and Irish patriotism speeches.
In Sweet Silver Blues, Morley translates a phrase as either "Dawn of Night's Mercy" or "Dawn of Night's Madness". Garrett is perplexed by the disparate translations, until he's told that the phrase was Dark Elfin, in which "mercy" and "madness" are the same word.
In the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, it is claimed that "[t]here is no word for 'thank you' in Dothraki." They do seem to understand the concept though, they just don't mess around with words and prefer more direct methods. Drogo struggles a bit trying to get it across, and ends up with "any horse in the camp is yours".
According to one of James Clavell's novels, the Chinese have no word for love. (What he seems to be referring to is that ai means both "love" and "want".)
Tamora Pierce played with this a few times—for example, in her Winding CircleDaja's Book, when they had interactions with Traders again, it comes up that the Trader language has "a dozen words for 'thank-you,' each with its own drop of dislike." Acknowledging a debt is not pleasant.
In Real Life, they do actually have those concepts—their word for "to own" is apparently nogo, "to steal" is chor—but didn't so much consider them as applying to non-Romani. They're an Indo-Iranian people, they basically converted their ancestors' raid-the-outsiders traditions into steal-from-the-Gadjo traditions. A lot fewer people get riddled with arrows in their version.
Dirk: There is no such word as "impossible" in my dictionary. (brandishing the abused book) In fact, everything between 'herring' and 'marmalade' appears to be missing.
The historical novel Caribbean by James Michener has a Rastafari preaching that people should avoid saying "dead" or "sin" if these sounds are part of words which have nothing to do with death or sins. Instead of "dedicate", say "i-dicate", or "i-new" instead of "sinew".
The title character of the novel So B. It is of limited intelligence and has a vocabulary of twenty-three words, a couple of which seem to be nonsense, further complicating the issue of understanding or communicating with her.
In the Ciaphas Cain book The Traitor's Hand, the residents of the Tidally Locked Planet Adumbria (who all live on the terminator line) have thirty-seven different dialect words for varying shades of twilight. The popular history of the Chaos incursion Cain's regiment dealt with is titled "Sablistnote almost complete darkness with one last glimmer of light still visible in Skitterfallnote the light level at the planet's capital, also the name of the capital itself". To Adumbrians this is a witty play on words, but it just annoys off-planet readers.
In the world of This Perfect Day the words "hate" and "fight" survive only as cuss words (whereas "fuck" is just another transitive verb.) When the hero gets angry enough to say "Fight Uni!" he has to explain that he's not swearing, he literally means they should take violent action.
The Dispossessed is partially set in an anarchist society that has no concept of property, which is even specifically coded into the language they use. Instead of saying "my toothbrush", they almost always say "the toothbrush I use", and their possessive is only used for clarity. (Note that most anarchists and communists in real life don't oppose personal possessions like toothbrushes, and in practice the Odonian society in The Dispossessed has certain items that are always or almost always used by the same individual). Additionally, their language also uses the same word for 'work' and 'play'.
Inverted in the short story "Never Forget" by Tom Holt. The narrator describes Caius Laelius as being so dedicated to being a Yes-Man that he learned a language that has a word for "yes" in it.
In the Uplift series it's said that speaking Anglic is what allows neo-dolphins to think rationally. And the transcendent species designed the Galactic languages to stifle creativity and ensure their former clients couldn't threaten them.
Frisby: I'm the gol-darndest liar that ever hit the pike...I don't mean exaggerations, I mean lies!
Alien: Mr. Frisby, there are terms that we cannot relate to our own language. This word "lie" that you mention...
Frisby: You mean that anything that anybody tells you just goes without saying it's the truth? Hence that everything I've told you you believe...
In the penultimate episode of Babylon 5, Delenn describes how when she was learning English, she had difficulty with the word "goodbye"note For values of "goodbye" more equal to "goodbye forever," or perhaps the most exacting form of "sayonara" because there is no corresponding word in any Minbari language:
Delenn: All of our partings contain within them the possibility of meeting again, in other places, in other times, in other lives.
Hebrew actually has the same "problem", if you will. Hebrew lehithraoth, like Italian arrivederci, literally translates more like "we will meet again", or at the very least "I hope that we will meet again." Mandarin Chinese does something very similar with zaijian, which translates loosely as "see again". Ditto in Russian, the commonly-used "do svidaniya" means "until [next] meeting". Naturally, this is utterly lost in Hollywood when Russian characters frequently say it before trying to kill someone (it's doubtful that they're hyper-religious and mean it metaphysically); a better choice would be "proshchai", which literally means "forgive" and is used as a permanent goodbye.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Loud as a Whisper", the Enterprise crew meet a famed diplomat Riva. Worf comments that Riva had negotiated treaties among the Klingon people; "Before Riva, there was no word in Klingon for 'peacemaker'."
When celebrating Worf's birthday, the Enterprise bridge crew sings "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in Klingon. Then Riker points out that they had trouble translating it, since there's no Klingon word for "jolly".note Fundamentally a syntax error, in that "jolly good fellow" means "a fellow that's jolly good", not "a good fellow that is jolly"—Klingon probably has some mild colloquial intensifier they could've applied to "good".
In the Star Trek: Enterprise pilot, Hoshi informs Captain Archer that the Klingons have no word for "Thank you", and that he "didn't want to know" the actual phrase he had taken for gratitude.
As originally conceived, the Klingon language had no separate verb for "to be" — Klingons having no need for a concept that refers to passive existencenote A copula, in linguistic terms, as in "the grass is green". The word is has no role in that sentence, right?. Then some writer decided the Klingons needed to quote Shakespeare ...
An example that was truer to the hypothesis involved a treaty between the Federation and a more advanced species. Said species found human languages to be so crude that they required an immense document to articulate the terms of the treaty. No-one in the Federation was able to translate their language at all.
In Harlan Ellison's original teleplay for "The City on the Edge of Forever", the Guardians of Forever had some difficulty explaining the danger posed by a renegade Enterprise crewman:
Guardian: The man Beckwith... he is a serious impediment in the Time-flow. He is scar-tissue. A clot in the bloodstream. Do you know the concept "evil"?
Kirk:(tensely) We do.
In "Peak Performance", the Zakdorn tactician Kolrami is asked what the Zakdorn word for "mismatch" is. His immediate response is "Challenge!"
Quark states during "Let He Who Is Without Sin" that Ferenginar's awful climate has led to the Ferengi language having 178 different words for rain.
Quark: Right now it's glemmening out there!
In Blackadder Goes Forth, Blackadder claims that the Germans have no word for "fluffy".note Germans do have a word for "fluffy". Actually more than six. They're flaumig, flauschig, fluffig, plüschig, puschelig, kuschelweich and depending on context schaumig or flockig. Eh, Rule of Funny.
They don't alwaysspeak English, although their alternative gets most of its vocabulary from English—but even in pure Jamaican Creole, you can say "impossible", just with multiple words (it's something along the lines of "no can do").
In George Carlin's special Doin' It Again, he refers to this trope, claiming that "We do think in language, so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language."
Dungeons & Dragons uses the tropes for quite a lot of languages, particularly languages of outsiders, though it's more "Thought Equals Language".
In the very first edition of AD&D you could speak your "Alignment Language" which allowed beings of the same alignment to communicate at a basic level. They attempted to dress it up as being like Black Speech etc. However, changing alignment also removes the ability to speak your alignment language.
Dark Speech, the secret tongue of evil gods, is so inhumanly spiteful and malicious that it's capable of inspiring instinctive dread in listeners and corroding physical objects; even infernal beings are wary of speaking such words carelessly. Its inverse are the Words of Creation, the lost language of Celestials' precursors, a tongue without words for hate or betrayal but an intricate terminology for forms of beauty and forgiveness. In either case, only a particularly virtuous or exceptionally vile individual can understand these languages well enough to speak them — neutral speakers will stumble over the words and get struck with a Feeblemind effect, while speakers of the opposing alignment will simply die.
The drow belong to a society that actively encourages psychopathy, and a such, they have no word that really means romantic love; the closest they have is one for physical lust. They don't have a word for "friend", either — that relationship is actually "an alliance for mutual benefit".
Goblins and orcs don't seem to have a word that means friendship as we understand it; the closest they have are two words, one meaning something like "willing submission to a greater power", the other "military alliance between equals". According to one source, the Orcish language does have dozens of words for disemboweling somebody.
Infernal is characterized by painfully exacting grammar and pronunciation, reflecting the Lawful Evil strictness of the devils who speak it. The Chaotic Evil demons in contrast didn't even have an alphabet until they bastardized Infernal for their own tongue, Abyssal, just another in the long list of grievances the Baatezu hold against the Tanar'ri. The demons' tongue, according to one Planescapesourcebook, is a hopeless pile of inconsistent dialects, which "may well be part of the reason the tanar'ri are so angry all the time — they're constantly and fundamentally misunderstood".
The Tau have a dozen different subtle distinctions of the phrase "first among equals". Their social ideal, the "Greater Good", could best be summed up as a mix of communism and patriotic utilitarianism.
The Dwarfs of Warhammer have no word for "forgiveness", but many for subtle variations of recompense, revenge, and retribution. This explains a lot about why they're going extinct.
Since their purpose is to fight the enemies of the Lizardmen, almost every word in the Saurus language relates to battle and strategies and so forth.
There's no word in the goblin language for "strategy." Then again, there's no word in the goblin language for "word."
In Nomine has the Angelic language of Celestial, which cannot be used to tell a lie. (It's uncertain how this is accomplished.) When Lucifer and his followers Fell, they created a bastardised version capable of lies. Incidentally, this means that Demons understand Celestial, but very few Angels understand Demonic.
The magical High Speech in Mage: The Awakening is said to be the only language which can accurately describe magic and magical processes. Using High Speech while casting a spell makes it more powerful since it aids the mage in conceptualizing the magic in a way which his human mind is not fully capable of. The fact that High Speech is primarily taught as a language to describe magic also makes it quite difficult to come up with ways of using it to communicate mundanely; the way a word in the High Speech would describe something (and the grammatical structure that would tie such words together) is too far removed from how a mage generally understands such things. This is part of the reason that sleepers cannot so much as hear the High Speech, let alone understand it; you could say the same thing in High Speech to a sleeper over and over, and they would only hear random gibberish.
In Palladium, the Wolfen language uses different tenses depending on whether the speaker is dominant to whomever they're addressing, or submissive to them. Equality of status does not exist in wolf society.
Nicky: Oh, Schadenfreude, huh? What's that, some kinda Nazi word?
Gary: Yup! It's German for "happiness at the misfortune of others!"
Nicky: "Happiness at the misfortune of others"? That is German!
House Ordos in Dune II and its sequels are the source of the current page quote.
The Morrigi from Sword of the Stars have no word for 'rank'; their society is a meritocracy based on rule by the one with the highest degree of 'merit', and every Morrigi knows more or less instinctively which Morrigi in any given group has the most merit, who would replace him if the most worthy was killed, and so on. The closest thing they have is the word "aanigi'dha", "worthiness-to-lead-people".
The Zuul word for "pirate" is simply "Zuul", they're a species of scavengers, slavers, and well, pirates. Additionally, their word for "dreadnought" is synonymous with "fortress", which is a little strange since Zuul ships are the least armored in the game. They do, however, have the most guns.
Every cult language in Nexus War. The language of the god of society and cooperation is easy to learn, the god of law's is extremely specific and long-winded, the god governing the physical laws of the universe has a language better suited for concepts than actions, and so forth.
The Dragons in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim make no distinction between "debating" and "fighting" — two dragons breathing fire at each other are just having a particularly heated argument. Furthermore, dragons' thoughts when voiced are able to alter reality, so when they Shout they are not merely casting a spell, but willing fire into existence with a word. Language Equals Thought Equals Being, in other words.
The Troll language is also much more complex than the human language when it comes to the subject of romance. Human culture would, for example, have difficulty diagnosing kismesis — but would also have trouble with moirallegiance (and would be likely to consider it extremely unhealthy). Troll culture, on the other hand, has no term for homosexuality, since troll reproduction works so that any pairing can produce progeny (it's complex, and it involves birth by proxy). This disconnect was only recently learned:
CG: HUMANS HAVE A WORD FOR THAT?
CG: HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING?
EB: shrug. it just is.
CG: HUMAN ROMANCE SURE IS WEIRD.
EB: i am just as confused by your troll shenanigans
You gotta take these remarks with a grain of salt, however: the one about "friend" and "enemy" being the same word was said by a troll, to a troll. There's obviously a difference, or else it would come across as "The troll word for blarg is the same as the troll word for blarg", and make no sense.
Especially since, due to the trolls having created the human universe, and presumably not having the time or imagination to create a fully-fledged Con Lang, the Troll language is almost EXACTLY THE SAME as English, but written right-to-left, in upside-down Daedric script.
Sara: There aren't words for it. There can't be. A language is built on the experience of its speakers. It's like how the eskimoes have a hundred words for snow. A language couldn't have words to describe how stupid this is. Its speakers would had to have been too stupid to survive long enough to develop enough forebrain to have a language in the first place!
Inverted with the SCP Foundation's SCP-444: A memetic virus which, once heard by a human, starts to alter their brain and simplify the language. The more they speak it, the more docile and less individualized they become. It's virulent and hereditary in infants — the Foundation considers it a precursor to an alien invasion.
Seanbaby once got the chance to interview Tony Jaa and asked him through a translator whether he killed the stuntman he kicked with his flaming legs in Ong Bak. He remarked that the question the translator posed to Mr. Jaa was only one word long.
Cracked's 5 Surprising Ways Your Language Affects How You Think starts by citing a study that found the correlation between grammatical gender in the language (der, die, das, or el, la) and a measurable lack of female workforce participation in the culture. It goes on to mention more studies about how use of a particular language by a bilingual speaker leads to more analytical thinking, shifting of ethnic prejudices, and shifting of expectations of family unity.
The Simpsons parodied this in an episode about Joan of Arc. Lisa (playing Joan of Arc) tells her family that she got a vision from God to lead the French to victory. Homer then whines, "We're French! We don't have a word for "victory"!note The word "victory" is in fact Anglo-Norman French.
Starfire: Nice? We do not have this word on my planet. The closest is rutha...weak.
Note that in this case "being nice" was being used to mean "doing something for no gain to myself, possibly causing harm to myself, in order for another to gain." Which could come across as weak.
Played for some laughs in the same episode when another group of war-like aliens show up to claim her as a trophy, she describes them as "not nice".
In Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, Galapagus repeats many times in his premier episode that his people do not have words for "prison", "war", etc, to show that they not engage in violent acts. It makes a great drinking game because of everytime he talks about how his people are peaceful.