Follow TV Tropes


Language Equals Thought

Go To

"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'."
Ordos introduction, Emperor: Battle for Dune

Linguistic relativity states that a person's language(s), through its vocabulary and structure, shapes the way that person habitually perceives reality, thinks, and behaves. In Real Life, this theory is usually misunderstood and, as a result, highly 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  In actuality, linguistic relativity refers only to how people casually and habitually approach reality. According to the theory, language does not keep anyone from consciously taking the effort to meditate and focus upon something for which he or she knows no words; rather, the theory points out the eminently logical point that people doing so will have to construct new terms if none already exist in their language and, naturally, their native language(s) will shape how they do so.

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" but plenty for "war" and "hate"; conversely, the inhabitants of a pacifist Utopia may lack a word for "war" or "hate" but many for "love".

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" (Not exactly.note  Inuktitut has two base words for snow, but it is a polysynthetic language, meaning new words are more easily created at need from existing ones.) On the other hand, Americans do have a large number of words for "being drunk."note 

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—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 linguistic relativity 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.

Subtrope of The Power of Language.


    open/close all folders 


    Anime and Manga 
  • 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 its "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."
  • We get a downplayed example and a much straighter example in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet. Ledo comes from an entire nation of Child Soldiers, who are shown to be missing two common words. First, it's shown that while they do have the word "gratitude", they don't have "thank you". The logic being the only person you would need to thank would be your CO and they already know you're grateful to them so stop wasting your breath. The other missing concept is "family", which they simply do not have anymore; parents are shunted back to the front lines once the child is out of the womb.
  • Discussed in Ōoku: The Inner Chambers — Taneatsu's first encounter with English and its efficiency/simplicity (compared to Danish and Japanese) leaves him wondering if it's the language which shaped the people or vice versa.

    Comic Books 
  • Astonishing X-Men: During the X-Men's trip to the Breakworld, their host Dafi at one point mentions that her people have no word for "hospital", because the concepts of mercy and compassion are entirely foreign to them.
  • The Cartoon History of the Universe: This trope is lampshaded after it's mentioned that the Romans decimated (i.e., killed every tenth person — although in actual Roman times this was reserved for executing deserters, but Rule of Funny reigns in this case) Athens, which leads a local woman to wonder why anybody would even have a dedicated word for that.
    Greek Woman: How many languages even have a word for "killed every 10th person?"
  • The DCU:
    • JLA (1997): Subverted 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.)
    • Green Lantern: In Alan Moore's "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".
  • Elfquest: The wolfriders do not require words for things they can take for granted. It was a very hard five hundred years for Cutter to learn the word for "peace (of mind)".
  • The Invisibles: Grant Morrison also uses this a number of times. 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.
  • 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".
  • Star Wars (Marvel 1977): In the first arc after the retelling of the original movie, the narration mentions that violence is such an everyday occurrence on the Wookiee homeworld that their language has fifteen separate words for it.
  • The Transformers (IDW): Megatron explains to Optimus Prime that his end goal is to create a world so thoroughly controlled and structured that the very idea of change or rebellion will be a thing of the past, that he will only remove his Arm Cannon and finally end his war when no one but himself recognizes why the act is significant.

    Fan Works 
  • 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.
  • 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 ultraviolet light. Federation Standard having been created by species with humanlike visual spectra, it has literally no equivalent words for the Undine ships' colors as she perceives them.
  • In Cranes, the Gotham City nickname for meta-humans is "Deader-Thans". This is because Gotham City is the haunt of Batman, who is notorious for his vehement Fantastic Racism against meta-humans, to the point the city is considered one of the worst places to be in the entirety of America if you're a meta.
  • A Good Compromise: Tyria Sark, a joined Trill, apparently equates Vorta reincarnation-by-cloning with Trill symbionts' ability to Body Surf (giving subsequent hosts the memories and some of the personality traits and tics of preceding ones).
    Tyria: cut the crap and answer the comm before your next host has to explain this to the Founders!
  • A Changed World has Captain Kanril Eleya of the Federation Starship Bajor introduce herself in Bajoran as "Colonel Kanril Eleya of the Federation Spacecraft Bajor". The Bajoran she's talking to also addresses her as Colonel Kanril.
  • RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse: Discussed in a story focusing on the dragons, who have problems here. Since dragon society is based mainly around greed and being the strongest, the dragon speaking to Cheerilee and Raindrops explains there are some terms he has to use Equestrian for, because the dragons just don't have the words.
  • In the Transformers fanfic Indefinite Objects, Maggie discovers that the Transformers lack puns in their language. While talking about this with Glenn, she explains that the Autobots might have a completely logical language-which means that they can only distinguish a value between what is true and what is false, and don't have standards for things like beauty and freedom. This leads them to theorize they may not be thinking beings, but little more than spy drones with Chinese rooms in them, feeding them the correct information to ape sentience.
  • In Love, escape and a future Harry receives some handwritten English-Dothraki phrasebooks as a wedding present.
    Harry: How do you say thank you in Dothraki?
    Jorah: There is no word in Dothraki for thank you Khaleesi.
    Harry: Then can you tell her these will be very helpful?
    Jorah: The closest I can say is greatly used.
  • Screwed:
    Once again the Goblins had the wizards in their control and at their mercy (although Goblins didn't have a word for mercy in their language).
  • In the Star Trek: Enterprise Parody Fic "Farce Contact", the Enterprise is about to make First Contact with the Deltans and Hoshi Sato notes that they have 100 words for blow.
  • Harry Potter and the Sword of Sethrael states that there are no words for death or theft in the elven tongue.
  • Free At Last:
    A slight riot broke out in the assembly at these revelations. Within the next ten minutes a decision had unanimously been made by the Goblin High Council. Considering the presence of the ICW representatives as well as the press and other notable invitees only ONE VERDICT could be made and it would be ruinous for British Gringotts. But then British Gringotts had endangered the reputation and honor of ALL Goblins and there wasn't a word for mercy in the Goblin language.
  • In The Weaver Option, the Necrons of the Throne of Oblivion issue the ultimatum "Surrender and die" when engaging in combat. The Ork Brukk-Brukk finds this confusing as Orks have no concept of "surrender", ultimately concluding it must a cultural thing.
  • In Harry Potter and the Magical Guardian Hagrid tells Dumbledore that Firenze stated that evil is stalking the Forbidden Forest.
    They both knew the gravity of Firenze choosing that word to describe the entity in the Forest. The centaur language didn't have words for "good" or "evil," they were not the type to use such labels. For a centaur to call a being "evil" meant that it was fundamentally outside the natural order.

  • The Chronicles of Riddick: "Balance is everything to an elemental. [...] We have 33 different words for it."
  • 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. To be fair, no one had ever lied before, so them having a word for it would be like a medieval person having a word for the Internet.
  • 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, though the military has words for lots of eventualities that haven't yet happened.
  • 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.
  • In a deleted scene from Avatar, it is stated that the Na'vi do not have their own word for "lie," but were taught the word by humans. The canonicity of this statement is debatable, since it is a deleted scene, and no Na'vi dictionaries on the web make any note of "lie" being a loanword or anything.
  • The Time Machine (2002): Mara, an Eloi woman living in the year 802,701, is confused by the concept of "steal" and does not know the word, despite being conversant in English.
  • Arrival: This concept is brought up offhandedly at the beginning while trying to translate the aliens' Starfish Language and understand how they think. Learning their language, which puts a heavy emphasis on time, allows humans to experience Mental Time Travel.
  • As originally conceived, the Klingon language in Star Trek had no separate verb for "to be" — Klingons having no need for a concept that refers to passive existence.note  Then some writer decided the Klingons needed to quote Hamlet in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.note  They tried using the verb "to exist" but Christopher Plummer didn't like how it sounded, so in the final film they use "taH", "to continue or endure."note  In 1995 the Klingon Language Institute published an entire translation of Hamlet into Klingonese with many such substitutions (the entire Klingon vocabulary being a total of 3,000 words, many of which are Space Opera terms useless for Shakespeare).

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four'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.
  • In Dune, Galach has different words for poison in food (chaumas) or drink (chaumurky), which probably says something about the Houses. While the desert-dwelling Fremen have different words for different types of sand, of course.
  • Always Coming Home actually averts the common mistakes. When some Kesh people grow fascinated with the Dayao idea of "armies", they have no trouble about having no words: they simply adopt the foreign ones. Likewise, it is entirely possible to say that a person is wealthy in the modern sense of possessing much instead of giving much, it just won't be seen as a positive trait. However, the Kesh grammar allows for no means to express the idea of owning a living being; any attempt to say it will come across as a Russian Reversal-style comedy.
  • In Anthem, the collectivist society has removed the first-person singular pronoun "I" from language and made "ego" into a forbidden word.
  • 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 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. 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 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.
  • Discworld:
    • 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."
    • Small Gods:
      • 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". Their word for "freedom" is also 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" when written down. Truth in Television here: in Real Life, pejorative Chinese words for foreigners, Europeans specifically, include "lo fan" ("white ghost") and "gwei lo" ("ghost man").
    • 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 tried to request.
    • One short story has Death posing an Armor-Piercing Question (which would later be recycled in Night Watch):
      "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?"
      • Hex has a similar opinion of human languages:
        +++ I am sorry. It is hard to convey five-dimensional ideas in a language evolved to scream defiance at the monkeys in the next tree. +++
    • Monstrous Regiment:
      • This is 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. The song also includes a phrase that roughly translates to "glowing opportunity" but more literally means "a great big fish"; this is what clues Vimes in that the country is not just backwards, but completely insane.
    • 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 Guards! Guards!, we're told that noble dragons don't have a word for "friend", the closest concept being "an enemy who isn't dead yet".
  • 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:
    • 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".
    • 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 many 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."
      • Mark Rosenfelder debunked this idea as part of his Language Construction Kit.
  • The Elenium: In The Tamuli, this pops up with the Troll language when the knights have a working alliance with the Trolls. It turns out that 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.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • New Jedi Order has a bioengineered creature used by the Yuuzhan Vong invaders that seems to be a Shout-Out to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — the tizoworm, a little wriggly thing one places in one's ear that translates for one. However, bred as it was by Yuuzhan Vong, it doesn't really have a word for "peace".
    • 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 instigate a fight. Thrawn does instigate fights, 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. (In Outbound Flight's sequel Survivor's Quest, we learn that, despite this, the Chiss military actually makes a veritable art form out of tricking the other guy into striking first, suggesting Thrawn simply wanted to cut a lot of BS out of the process.)
    • Legacy of the Force: In Revelation, Baltan Carid states that the Mandalorian language has 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 as set down by the Republic Commando Series 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.
    • Tales from Jabba's Palace: C-3PO explains that because Hutts are able to consume most any substance with no ill effect there are no Huttese words for "poison". "Fierfek", the Huttese word most other races assume to mean poison, is actually slang for "hex".
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 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, 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.
  • Known Space:
    • A few stories mention that the (extinct) Tnuctipun didn't have a word for intelligent aliens; their close equivalent roughly translated to "food that talks".
    • The Puppeteers are a race of aliens who evolved from skittish grazing herbivores, so being a Dirty Coward is practically their racial hat. Their word for "leader" is "Hindmost", implying that they believe that a great leader truly leads from the back. Also of note, they have No Sense of Humor, which makes sense seeing as when you're laughing at a joke, your situational awareness is impaired and your breathing pattern is disrupted, and in the words of a Puppeteer, no sane sapient would ever willingly disable a defense mechanism.
    • Inverted by humanity's rulers in the time between Gil Hamilton's adventures and first contact with the Kzin; "war" and "weapons" may be forgotten words, but only because human culture and history have been thoroughly folded, spindled and mutilated to erase the concepts behind them. Hostility and conflict, even on a personal level, are viewed as borderline obscenities. This nearly gets the first human crew to meet the Kzin killed; only at the last moment does a crewman think to use the ship's drive (a laser so powerful it doubles as a communication link at interstellar distances) to carve up the Kzinti ship.
  • Ringworld:
    • 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.) His job is actually demeaning to a Kzin, as his sole task is to apologize to any alien in order to avoid a diplomatic incident. In Kzinti culture, any misunderstanding usually results in a challenge and a duel to the death, and they never apologize.
    • 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  means "Obey instantly or be torn to pieces." Registers are not 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.
  • Callahan's Crosstime Saloon: 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.
  • Codex Alera:
    • The Canim in the series have a very martial culture, and they supposedly have a dozen different words that translate to English (or Aleran, or whatever you call what the reader is reading) as "enemy". However, the only such word we actually hear is gadara, which means more specifically something like "honorable and respected enemy, whom I alone claim the right to kill". A gadara is considered better than a friend, since they have to defend their claim on the other's eventual death.
    • 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".
  • The plot of The Languages of Pao centers 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 (1994) 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 The 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 Out of the Silent Planet, 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 Perelandra, Ransom 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.
  • Star Trek Expanded Universe:
    • Doctor's Orders mentions that the Orion Pirates use the same word for "stealing" as "getting paid".
    • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels expand on the Ferengi language, saying they have 57 words for "customer" (one of which also means "river sludge") and several words for "no" (which one you use indicates how much latinum is needed to change your mind).
    • 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 favor of the Children of San-Tarah.
    • Rihannsu:
      • Mnhei'sahe, the Romulan honor concept, is extremely difficult for even USS Enterprise's best linguist to translate to English but is intrinsic to Romulan behavior. In practice it's best defined as some combination of personal integrity and "face" + value of family and The Clan + Enlightened Self-Interest.
      • The Romulan dictionary in The Romulan Way notes that the word "galae", usually translated as "fleet" (as in a Space Navy), is actually closer to an aircraft squadron in connotations, hearkening back to the Romulan adoption of massed airpower in internal wars in their early history. This implies that culturally the Romulans favor Space Is Air to Space Is an Ocean, in turn explaining the use of "warbird" in place of "starship".
  • 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 Butcherede 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 Robert J. Sawyer's The Neanderthal Parallax, the Neanderthal word for war is a long, clunky affair, and Ponter is Anviliciously horrified to learn how short and simple the English word "war" is.
  • Garrett, P.I.: 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, A 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".
    • Dothraki culture seems to believe that thanks and gratitude are things to be shown, not merely said. When Drogo is given Dany as a wife, it is expected that he will eventually repay Viserys in whatever manner he believes fitting. Though Viserys's attitude and increasing dickbaggery eventually result in Drogo repaying him in... unexpected ways. They very much have the concept of gratitude, they just believe it should be expressed physically rather than verbally. So the difference in language does signal a difference in thought, but the difference is in how gratitude is shown, not in whether it exists.
    • The Dothraki, being a raiding culture, have no concept of trading at all, lacking the words "trade", "buy", "sell", and so on. Eventually the merchants just used the gift-giving concept that the Dothraki do understand, explaining it as giving the Dothraki a gift in return for a specific gift that the merchants have indicated they'd like ahead of time.
    • It is stated in the TV series that the Dothraki also have ten different words for "horse". To be fair, English has way more than that.
  • 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 Circle Daja'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 Incarnations of Immortality, it's claimed that the Romani have no words for "possession" or "ownership", meaning that the concept of "stealing" doesn't exist for them. This isn't actually true.
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency pokes fun at this:
    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  in Skitterfall."note  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'. This is eventually subverted, however, as the language evolved with time: there's a word "kleggich", roughly translating to "drudgery", that is used for work that is necessary but so unpleasant it cannot be mistaken for play. Likewise, Pravic has words for things that do not exist in their society (crime, priests, thieves) because it would be hard to teach history and philosophy otherwise, but this does not mean that the inhabitants truly understand those things.
  • In the Courts of the Crimson Kings: The Martians don't have separate words for "pirate" and "police officer" or "ruler" and "tyrant". They all fall under the broad heading of coercives, which gives you some idea of how they go about convincing others to obey authority.
  • 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.
  • The Stormlight Archive: The Alethi and other Vorin cultures have a Fantastic Caste System where people with lighter-colored eyes are on top. As a result, their only word for "noble" is "lighteyes". Whenever a foreigner talks about foreign nobles (who don't necessarily have light eyes) in Alethi they end up having to refer to them in a roundabout way as "lighteyes who don't have light eyes", and the Alethi among them often have a hard time accepting the concept.
  • Somewhither: Ilya notes that the language used in the Dark Tower includes a lot of specialized terms for specific kinds of maiming and torture.
    It's like the Eskimos having one hundred eighty different words for snow. Except if something dark and evil and sadistic and sick fell from northern clouds rather than snowflakes, making glaciers and icebergs and permafrost.
  • Awake in the Night Land: In the setting, a human killing another human is considered so unthinkable that there isn't even a specific word for it; in the story "The Last of all Suns", when a character from the setting refers to the concept, he falls backs on a word which specifically means "killing a nonhuman monster".
  • In the Collegium Chronicles, the language of Mag's native culture (who are assassins for hire) only has words that they deem important to their society. Concepts that aren't important, or aren't native to their area, such as 'games' and 'snow', they instead use the words of other languages, usually those of the small country that they live in.
  • Brian W. Aldiss's story "Confluence" (1967; repr. in his collection The Moment Of Eclipse, Granada Panther, 1973) purports to be a dictionary giving English equivalents for codes representing the semantic units or "words" (sound plus posture) of the language of a recently contacted alien race. The story allows us to bring to consciousness a skill which we all have to some degree, that of forming ideas about a culture from the semantic structure of its vocabulary (as with the many synonyms for "kill" in Latin). The aliens have a word for "the struggle that takes place in the night between the urge to urinate and the urge to continue sleeping" (p. 98), a phenomenon familiar to us but for which we have no special word. We can deduce from the fact that they have a single word for both "a thinking machine that develops a stammer" and "the act of pulling on the trousers while running uphill" (p. 97) not only their level of technology and their style of dress, but also something about their attitude to their technology (like our attitude to our technology, a sort of helpless rage). We detect a more sinister aspect of their culture in the existence of a number of words, each carefully labelled "obsolete", connected with a ceremony of eating one's maternal grandfather.
  • In the Island in the Sea of Time (Series), Swindapa Kurlelo is a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, but because of the way her people's language works (including the tendency for numeral words to also express ideas), her attempts to share her knowledge with English-speakers often results in her coming off as a Cloud Cuckoolander.
  • Played with in Animorphs. The Andalites use the same word, shorm, for Platonic Life-Partners/Heterosexual Life-Partners and for the lethally sharp bone blades on the end of their tails. It's not because they equate friends to weapons; rather, they regard a very good friend as one whom they would trust to put a tail-blade against their throat and not worry them.
  • The language of the Imperial Radch has no gendered pronouns. Radch society does not recognize the concept of gender roles (and possibly not even gender as a concept), and thanks to genetic engineering the limitations of biology vis-a-vis reproduction and lineage have been eliminated. The entire book series is written using Translation Convention for Radch language (using female personal pronouns, ("she", "her") and male title pronouns ("lord", "priest")), meaning that none of its characters (with a few exceptions who are talked about using different languages) are gendered.
  • Kris Longknife:
    • The avian Alwans lack any concept of commerce, having been pre-industrial when contacted. To get them to work as soldiers or factory workers, the humans resort to spelling out what they need to do in order to earn "gifts" from a catalog. Also the arboreal "Rooster" subspecies doesn't have any concept of war, but the plains-dwelling "Ostrich" subspecies does, and the Ostriches become some of the best fighters on Alwa Station.
    • Once Kris's expedition deciphers the Human Alien Planet Looters' language in Tenacious, they discover that while it has over a dozen words for "submission", it interestingly has no word for "war", as the Absolute Xenophobe marauders consider all intelligent life other than themselves to be vermin. It also turns out to have no word for "surrender", so when a squadron of enemy ships seemingly tries to surrender, they attempt to get this across by transmitting, "We will be your slaves", over and over. (Kris has to destroy them because they're refusing her commands to cut thrust and divert from a strategic jump point, meaning that she can't tell whether the surrender is genuine.)
    • The Sasquans, a mostly friendly race of Cat Folk, refer to Kris as having "pounded" a Sasquan head of state who tried to nuke her flotilla of battlecruisers shortly after First Contact (Kris shot down her missiles and then reduced her mountain redoubt and the mountain it was housed in to molten slag with Orbital Bombardment). Kris's sentient computer Nelly informs Kris that "pounding" is something prey animals do, whereas cats "slash" and "cut". Kris phrases her response accordingly.
  • Genocidal Organ is about the hunt for an American linguistics expert called John Paul, who has discovered a 'language of genocide' and is using it to start ethnic conflicts in Third World countries. Linguistic relativity being discredited is brought up in a Just Between You and Me discussion between the protagonist and John Paul. However, it's not an actual language so much as a grammar of genocide — subconscious speech patterns and topics that can activate pre-historic logic processes in the human brain responsible for culling members of a population when faced with food shortages, and which commonly appear before periods of civil unrest and ethnic conflict. John Paul has just reverse-engineered the linguistics to spread subliminal messages, so that the grammar causes genocides rather than merely foreshadowing them.
  • Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Gu explains in her memoir Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up (extract by The Guardian) that she was very confused by English verb tenses while learning the language ("I particularly detested the past-perfect progressive tense, which I called the Annoying PPP"), as well as by the lack of individual meaning in English letters as opposed to Hanzi characters. She also notes that, China having a heavily collectivist culture, she initially used the first-person-plural so much she frequently confused Brits she spoke to.
  • In Speaker for the Dead, the porcine alien Pequeninos (or "piggies") live in a highly matriarchal society. When a male human colonist asks a male Pequenino translator to speak a phrase to a female Pequenino involving him issuing her a command and her issuing him a request, the translator replies, "I can't say that!" There's a moment of confusion when the humans believe that he is merely offended by the idea or afraid of the consequences of speaking it to her, but it turns out that it's literally true: there is no way of expressing these ideas in the Pequenino language with the male in a position of power and the female in a position of submission. The translator has to ask the female's permission to refer to her as if she were male before carrying on with the conversation.
  • The Deed of Paksenarrion: The second book notes that Elvish has a quirk where reversing the order of letters in a word gives its inversion or negation. For example, the Elvish word for elves is sinyi ("Singers"), whereas their word for the dark elves is iynis ("Un-Singers").
  • Justified in Remembrance of Earth's Past: Trisolarans have visible brains which light up as they think, so for them, thought and communication are one and the same, and it takes them a while to figure out that the human words think and say aren't synonyms. The idea of communicating something untrue is foreign to them, and they have major difficulty understanding the concept of deception. Humans use this to their advantage.
  • Alderamin on the Sky: The Sinack mountain tribes on the northern border of the Katvjarna Empire cast their independence revolt as a "holy war". This raises the eyebrows of the Badass Bookworm main character Ikta Solork, since the concept of a holy war doesn't actually exist in the Sinack language or culture: they view war purely as a means of survival, neither holy nor unholy. While Yatori Igsem suggests that the proximal cause of the local Imperial general seizing the Sinacks' elemental spirit partners might qualify it as a "holy war", Ikta instead believes, correctly, that a third party is using the Sinack for a Proxy War and introduced the concept to them.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Farscape. Played with when John Crichton has to explain to Aeryn Sun—who as a Sebacean has been raised from birth to be a Peacekeeper soldier—what "compassion" is. Aeryn then says she does know what the word means—she just doesn't like the idea.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby".
    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...
  • The Outer Limits (1995). In "Quality of Mercy", Cadet Bree Tristan has learnt some of the language of their alien captors and says they don't appear to have a word for "mercy". Though as she's an alien spy pulling a False Innocence Trick, it appears they can understand the concept well enough to manipulate it.
  • Babylon 5:
    • In the penultimate episode, Delenn describes how when she was learning English, she had difficulty with the word "goodbye"note  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.
    • In a previous episode, Lorien brought up this very trope, but used it in a "Chicken or the Egg" scenario.
    Lorien: Words have meaning and names have power. The universe begun with a word, you know. But which came first: the word or the thought behind the word? You can't create language without thought .. and you can't conceive a thought without language. So which created the other and, thus, created the universe?
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series: 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.
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
      • In the 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." In reality, "jolly good fellow" is a colloquial expression meaning "very good fellow" rather than "fellow who is good and jolly."
      • In "Peak Performance", the Zakdorn tactician Kolrami is asked what the Zakdorn word for "mismatch" is. His immediate response is "Challenge!"
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
      • 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. Moments later he explains why everyone is complaining about the food by noting there's no word for "crisp" on Ferenginar, either.
      Quark: Right now it's glemmening out there!
      • At one point Worf mentions that he and Martok had a moment of Tova'dok between them. Worf says the Klingon word has no equivilent in English, but he is easily able to define it as "a moment of clarity between two warriors on a field of battle" where "much is said without the need for words."
    • Star Trek: Enterprise:
      • In the pilot, Hoshi informs Captain Archer that she doesn't think the Klingons have a word for "Thank you", and that he "didn't want to know" the actual phrase he had taken for gratitude. (This is either Hoshi's mistake or the episode's writers': The Klingon Dictionary actually does include a verb for "to thank", tlho', though this is indeed not what the Klingon Chancellor said. However, since this is a prequel, it's quite possible Hoshi doesn't have access to this information.)
      • In one episode, the crew met some aliens whose word for "eating" was intrinsically linked to their word for "sex." They took one look at the mess hall and stormed off screaming in outrage. Once they're contacted to help solve the episode's conflict, they expect an appology for people eating in front of them because "[to] put food in your mouth... it's like mating!"
  • In Blackadder Goes Forth, Blackadder claims that the Germans have no word for "fluffy" as an evidence of Teutonic brutality. This is probably Rule of Funny: Germans actually have more than six words for "fluffy". They're flaumig, flauschig, fluffig, plüschig, puschelig, kuschelweich and depending on context schaumig or flockig. In fact, the English word "fluffy" comes from the German word "fluffig".
  • In The Office, Michael claims that the Jamaicans don't have a word "impossible." Jim promptly points out that they do. (Jamaicans speak English and/or the English-based Jamaican Patois, so their word for impossible is "impossible.")
  • 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."
  • In Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm claims that people from Amsterdam have no word for virginity.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Inverted in "A Good Man Goes to War", where it is revealed that the Doctor has influenced many worlds indirectly throughout his travels. River Song claims that many languages, including Earth-based languages like English, have the word 'Doctor', meaning 'wise man' or 'healer', while some other worlds use the word 'Doctor' to mean 'warrior' or 'conqueror'. For the people of the Gamma Forest, it means 'mighty warrior'. "We got that from you!" she proclaims at one point.
    • In the same episode The Reveal is that the people of the Gamma Forest have no word for "pond", because the only water in their forest is the river. And the closest word for 'melody' is 'song'.
    • Most Daleks cannot state their names (they have none), they just say "I am a Dalek". Their word for "friend" is their word for "enemy". Anything emotional (such as saying "I love you") causes them to say "Exterminate!" and fire their weapon. They know the word 'mercy', but treat using it as the epitome of helplessness, hence their typical ruthlessness.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • In Gary Gulman's special It's About Time, he states that "Eskimos have 100 words for snow, and Jews have 100 words for loser.
  • Shortly after the Exxon Valdez disaster, Jools Holland quipped "Eskimos have 37 words for 'snow'. And now they have just as many for 'oil spill'. Most starting with 'F-' and ending in '-ing Exxon'!"

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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 can speak your "Alignment Language", which allows beings of the same alignment to communicate at a basic level. This is dressed it up as being Black Speech and the like. 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 combine this with Evil Cannot Comprehend Good; they belong to a society that actively encourages psychopathy, and as 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". As a matter of fact, their word for "trust" is a synonym for "foolishness."
    • 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" and 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 Planescape sourcebook, 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".
    • Nagas are supremely arrogant beings, and each views themself as incarnate perfection, other members of its specific breed as nearly so, other nagas as further flawed, and non-nagas as increasingly imperfect. Consequently, they have no concept of equal rank, and their language has no word for "peer".
    • A couple of additions to this from fan-made websites:
      • Some website that may not base this on official sources has an interesting version of the Lawful Evil Infernal language(s) of the Baatezu (devils), presenting a fourfold hierarchy: Hellhound is mainly useful for barking orders. Baatezu or Infernal is deceptive and beguiling and it's impossible to tell the truth in it. It also contains a legal jargon that is, somehow, simultaneously binding and meaningless. (So good luck trying to come out ahead in that Deal with the Devil.) Greater Baatezu or Malbaogni is even more exquisite and is used by lower Baatezu nobles, who probably use it with great skill but don't actually understand what they're saying, because that's only possible with knowledge of Mabrahoring, the language of the highest Baatezu elite.
      • There used to be a fan-made explanation on the web of the language of the Slaadi, the toad-like creatures embodying pure chaos. According to it, no-one had been able to study the language until a linguist got to study a human who had been raised by Slaadi and spoke the language. For a start, it was hard to even get this human to understand the concept of a common noun that applied to several different objects instead of just one. When communication was finally established, it turned out one of the reasons the Slaadi language was so weird was because Slaadi "individuals" didn't even exist in integer quantities other than when they interacted with other beings. Obviously it's hard to even imagine what this would mean, but the most extreme creatures in the Planescape setting have always had a bit of an air of complete otherness. (By official sources, or at least 2nd edition Planewalker's Handbook, Slaadi is just another no doubt weird language you can learn, but the language of the extremely orderly Modrons costs extra to learn for "being based on unique concepts".)

  • Warhammer 40,000:
  • Warhammer
    • The Dwarfen language of Khazalid has several examples of this:
      • It has no word for "forgiveness", but many for subtle variations of recompense, revenge, and retribution. This explains a lot about why they're going extinct.
      • It has multiple words for gold (azgal, bryn, churk, galaz, konk, krunz, gorlm gnolgen, etc), not only to distinguish the physical characteristics, but also the historical and present circumstances for each manifestation of gold and its commercial properties, such as spending gold, loaned gold, gold that is found by accident, ancestral gold, freshly mined gold, gold used in unlucky deals, and so on.
      • Khazalid also subverts this in another way: it has no words for abstract concepts...but it's not that Dwarfs don't understand abstract concepts, it's that all abstract concepts are expressed via bywords. For instance, the literal meaning of the word for "Everlasting" is "similar to a mountain", the literal meaning of the word for "untrustworthy" is "similar to an elf", and the word for "shoddy" is "built by a human".
    • 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.
  • Magic: The Gathering has some fun in this regard with the flavor text in its cards. Some examples:
    • Cyclopes are more or less universally portrayed as vicious, bloodthirsty and barely sapient brutes.
      'There are only fifty words in the cyclops language, and ten of them mean 'kill'." — Ertai, Bloodrock Cyclops
    • Goblins are almost always aggressive, borderline self-destructive and none-too-bright little buggers.
      There's no word in the goblin language for "strategy". Then again, there's no word in the goblin language for "word". — Goblin Striker
  • 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 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 addition, some scholars theorize that the fall of Atlantis "broke" High Speech, making it nearly impossible to directly communicate with - only a handful of particularly erudite students of the language can actually have a conversation in it.
  • 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.
  • In 7th Sea, the nation of Eisen (totally-not-pre-Imperial Germany) has been put through the wringer lately, with the totally-not-the-Thirty Years' War and all, which has accordingly made its people grim and fatalistic — but, as the tagline of the Eisen supplement points out, "there is no word in Eisen for surrender".
  • The cats in Pugmire supposedly have seven different words for "betrayal." Pan Dachshound considers that just one more reason never to trust the buggers.
  • Houses of the Blooded is scattered with trivia about the ven language, much of which says quite a bit about the culture of the ven. The fact that "romance" and "revenge" differ only by the placement of an accent comes to mind.
  • Eon: Elvish has no distinction between verbs and adjectives. Humans generally wonder how Elvish is even a functinal language, while elves consider the human insistence on making a distinction proof that humans would rather pick apart and over-analyze things than enjoy them for what they are.

  • Avenue Q lampshades this trope in their song "Schadenfreude":
    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!
  • "Eldorado" from Candide:
    They have no words for fear and greed,
    For lies and war, revenge and rage.

    Video Games 
  • House Ordos in Dune II and its sequel Emperor: Battle for Dune 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, which fits their Attack! Attack! Attack! mentality.
  • 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 Elder Scrolls:
    • In the series' lore, Ta'agra (the language of the Khajiit) has no word for "rules". The closest equivalent translates to "foolish concepts". Naturally, this leads to much Culture Clash between them and the other races, especially when it comes to what constitutes "personal property" and "theft."
    • The Argonian language, known as "Jel", has no past or future tense verbs. As such, Argonians tend to live "in the now," easily forgetting and forgiving past offenses while paying little mind to the future. (The possibly omniscient Hist, sentient trees native to the Argonian homeland who the Argonians worship, seem to do that for them, as seen with them foreseeing and preparing the Argonians for the Oblivion Crisis and turmoils of the 4th Era.)
    • The Dragons in 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. This is exploited with the "Dragonrend" thu'um: Dragons have words for the concepts of "mortal," "finite," and "temporary," but as immortal Aedric beings they will never truly grasp them like they do the words for fire, ice and so forth. "Dragonrend" uses those words to briefly force dragons to experience concepts utterly antithetical to their very nature, leaving them temporarily unable to Shout or fly.
    • One quest in The Elder Scrolls Online reveals that there is no word in the Orcish language meaning "fragile". This reflects their warlike culture, which values strength. Similarly, apparently there is no word for "patience" in Old Orcish, with the closest word meaning "sedated".
  • Skullface's motives in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain stem primarily from his and Zero's belief in this idea. As a child, he was made to forget his native tongue by foreign invading forces, and he claims to have felt his mind and personality change each time he was made to learn a new language. Because of this, he also seems to view English as an inherently violent, colonial language with certain politics attached to it - his way of dealing with these ideas, then, is to breed and attempt to spread a parasite that kills the host if they speak in English, creating a world where the "only language" is that of nuclear warfare. The main reason he stopped working alongside Zero was him finding out that Zero had similar ideas and wanted to "unite the world" by making it so that there were only a select number of languages that could be spoken.
  • In Destiny, the Cabal are a massive species akin to rhinos or turtles, and are intensely militarized and lack any idea or concept of subtlety. Everything they build is done so on a grand scale, from military equipment to cities to festivals. In warfare, they have no concept of retreating, to the point that a Cabal legion deployed into battle is essentially exiled and unable to return home until they have completed their mission... or die trying. Even their equivalent of the Icarus legend, the Legend of Acrius, simply ends with the Cabal in question seizing control of the sun and becoming the first Emperor. Appropriately, they have no known words for "retreat" or "hubris."
  • In Heroes of Might and Magic Ashan, the demon language has the words for "Politics" and "War" interchangeable with each other. One scenario has you being a "candidate" in a demonic "election" which basically amounts to killing the other candidates to establish your supremacy.
  • In the Divine Divinity universe the Elves live in the moment and thus their language has no past and future tenses. A few Elves learning a human language bother learning these concepts; most don't.
  • Mentioned briefly in The Secret World - language of immortals has no word for "Patience". Though it could be just a methaphor from the Buzzing.
  • Subverted in Final Fantasy Type-0 by the people of Concordia. They have a language, Soryusian, whose literal translations are very terse; the language is designed for minimal ambiguity in a combat situation, so that, for example, when Celestia points at Ace and says "Ratelo" (strike the target), her diepvern knows exactly what she wants it to do. However, the language is a secondary language, and only sees use in combat situations; otherwise, Concordians speak the same language as the rest of Orience.
  • In Stardew Valley, the Dwarf may at times mention that he obtained his merchandise from peoples' homes and glibly remark that he doesn't understand the term "personal property". He may be trying to play you for a fool, though.
  • In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the soldiers on both sides of the Forever War are incubated in pods and are set on the battlefield from the moment they're born, under the mote of their respective Colony's Flame Clocks. As a result, they have no concept of familial relations or of physical intimacy, and so many of their exclamations evoke fire-based imagery (such as 'spark' and 'snuff'), instead of anything pertaining to the former (such as 'fuck' or 'bastard').

  • Discussed in Digger, when the statue of Ganesh has difficulty explaining to Digger the intricacies of a magical interference, because the language they're using just doesn't have the words for the kind of perceptions a god has. Digger compares this to one of her people (wombats) trying to discuss geology with a species that has "maybe five words for rock".
  • In Homestuck, the Troll language word for 'friend' is the same as the word for 'enemy.' Considering the general nature of Troll relationships, this is quite fitting.
    • 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 kismesisnote  — but would also have trouble with moirallegiancenote , and would use less positive words for it, likening it more to codependence. 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:
      EB: yes.
      EB: shrug. it just is.
      EB: i am just as confused by your troll shenanigans
    • Karkat also claims that Trolls have no word for "dare."
    • 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 Conlang, the Troll language is almost EXACTLY THE SAME as English, but written right-to-left, in upside-down Daedric script.
  • In 8-Bit Theater, Princess Sara comments that there is no word for the degree of stupid for the Dark Warriors.
    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!
  • Slightly Damned has the angelic language, which has no actual curse words. This gets played with when people are shown to attempt to curse in that language, the literal translation of which is...rather bizarre sounding.
    Demon: <in Angelic> You may kiss my posterior, you son of an ugly woman.
    Angel: <in Angelic> Wh-wha...I-I-how dare you! For such an uncouth remark, instead I will kick it!
  • In Sluggy Freelance, the inhabitants of the Dimension of Lame normally have extremely wonderful days, but sometimes have to tolerate a rather nice day to appreciate how wonderful the other days are. As a result, "rather nice" is about the worst descriptor they can apply to a state of affairs, even when they are invaded by the Legions of Hell. After a while, one of them does come to the realisation that "This isn't even hardly nice!"

    Web Originals 
  • From Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do in an RPG:
    1849: There is too an elven word for "monogamy".
    1850: There is also an elven word for "heterosexual".
  • 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.
  • Tylansian in Orion's Arm uses the same words for "truth teller" and "complaining child" while the word for "liar" also means "successful man". It has often been stated as a cause for their ruling class' Chronic Backstabbing Disorder and Tylansia's general stagnation (and ludicrous propaganda films that are strangely popular in the civilized galaxy).
  • 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.
  • Spoony parodies this in an April Fools' comic book review when the comic in question asserts the Wookies' violent nature by stating that Wookies have fifteen different words for violence. He proceeds to then list nearly thirty separate words in the English language in some way related to it.note 
    Spoony: God, we're terrible as a species.
  • The Anime Man discusses this in his video "Why My "Personality" Changes When Speaking Japanese." He's fluent in both English and Japanese and usually laces his English videos with a lot of sarcasm, but fans noticed that this disappeared when he did videos or segments in Japanese and were wondering if he was doing it deliberately. After thinking about it, he realized that sarcasm as it's understood in English is just about impossible to do in Japanese.
  • Not Always Right has this story of someone from Washington moving to Arizona, working at a clothing store, and discovering that the people in the latter consider any item of cold-weather clothing a "jacket", as opposed to a cardigan, coat, windbreaker, parka...

    Western Animation 
  • 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 
  • Teen Titans
    • In the Whole Episode Flashback Everyone Meets Everyone episode, "Go!", Starfire, who hails from a warrior planet, is chewed out by the others for attacking them when they try to help her. 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."
      Robin: We were just trying to be nice!
      Starfire: Nice? We do not have this word on my planet. The closest is rutha...weak.
    • This is later played for 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.
  • Steven Universe: Homeworld doesn't have a word for "art". When Peridot and Lapis Lazuli reinvent it, Peridot describes it as music, but with objects in an attempt to connect it to things she can recognize ("music" also being a concept she had to be introduced to on Earth). Played for Laughs in that they coin the term "meepmorps" for what they're doing.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Eskimo Words For Snow, Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, Thought Equals Language


No Sinack Word for "Holy War"

"The Northern Katvjarna Rebellion". Ikta Solork is told that the Sinack Chief Nanaku Daru called their independence revolt against the Katvjarna Empire a "holy war", which he finds to be at odds with what he knows of the Sinack language and culture. Namely, no such concept as "holy war" actually exists in it: the Sinack view war as a purely practical concept. Yatori Igsem suggests that the Sinack hold their spirit partners (stolen by the Imperial general in command as a means of subjugation) to be holy and might therefore view a war to recover them as a "holy war", but Ikta dismisses that possibility: he has a hunch that a third party introduced the concept to give the Sinack a justification.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / LanguageEqualsThought

Media sources: