14 January 2014

Have concept, but no straightforward word

On 2 January, the Economist's language columnist Johnson published an article under the rubric Word of the year and the heading Johnson: And the winner for 2013 is... The article is signed 'R.L.G.' and was written in Berlin.

The passage I'd like to focus on reads (my bold):
When Johnson was asked by a German magazine to write a short commentary on the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who blew the lid on America's electronic eavesdropping, I was moved to muse that the German language had no straightforward word for “privacy”. (It has Privatsphäre, or “private sphere”, and Ungestörtheit for the idea of being left in peace, but no word for the abstract notion of privacy itself.)
Under the traditional lazy analysis, “German has no word for ‘privacy’” should mean that the concept is unimportant to Germans, or that they have a hard time understanding it. But the opposite is true.
The comments below the article mention other German possible equivalents of 'privacy', suggesting that Johnson could have elaborated a little on what he meant by 'straigtforward'. Still he does appear to have picked up on a nugget of information. Linguists and more particularly terminologists have long debated the complex and evolving relationships between terms and concepts. See, for instance, this thesis. Johnson's observation may give them further food for thought.

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