Friday, January 30, 2015

"Ręka" and "hand"

I've been thinking about a curious issue in translation, which is not that uncommon. In most ordinary contexts, the Polish "ręka" and the English "hand" would be interchangeable in the sense that where a speaker of one language would use the one, the speaker of the other would use the other. Where the English-speaker talks of having something in his hand, the Polish-speaker talks of having it in his ręka, and so on. But the two terms are not synonymous. In non-medical Polish, "ręka" refers to the whole of the upper limb (though in medical Polish, it refers just to the hand), while the English "hand" refers only to the area from the wrist to the fingertips. The Polish term referring to the exact same part of the body as the English "hand" does is "dłoń", but the word is significantly less used than "ręka" (as per Google hits in .pl sites, say), and in many ordinary contexts using "dłoń" for "hand" would make for awkward translation. Conversely, to translate the Polish "ręka" as "arm", which would refer to the same part of the body (I am assuming that the arm includes the hand), would in most cases lead to awkwardness as well. It sounds funny to talk of picking up one's phone with one's arm, and so on.

Thus, it seems that these are cases where the natural translation from one language to the other does not in fact preserve the truth conditions. One can pick up one's phone with one's ręka without picking it up with one's hand (say, use the crook of the elbow), even though in the context of picking up a phone one would translate "ręka" as "hand", unless it was obvious from the context that the hand wasn't the part of the arm that was being used.

Maybe what is happening here is that when a sentence asserts a proposition p and implicates a stronger proposition q, we feel no qualms about using a translation that asserts q, or vice versa. To say in Polish that one picked up one's phone with one's ręka implicates the stronger proposition that one did this with one's hand, since if one had picked it up in the unusual way with the crook of the elbow, say, we would have expected the speaker to mention this. (This is a case where the usual Gricean presumption that one will use an equally brief but more precise term in place of a less precise one is defeated by the fact that the more precise and equally brief term "dłoń" is also less commonly used.) So one translates the implicature rather than the assertion.

I wonder, though. Maybe cases like this are evidence that the distinction between implicature and assertion is artificial. This would have the important consequence that the wrongness of implicating contrary to one's mind, or at least intentionally doing so, is the same sort of thing as lying. I don't want to embrace that consequence in general. I think false implicature is qualitatively less morally problematic than lying.


Heath White said...

“In most ordinary contexts, the Polish "ręka" and the English "hand" would be interchangeable… In non-medical Polish, "ręka" refers to the whole of the upper limb”

I don’t see how both of these can be true. If I say, “A dog bit my reka” or “I broke my reka” or “My son has a strong reka” or any context where the reka is passive rather than active, what does the Polish listener hear?

It seems more likely to me (though obviously this is speculation, since I don’t speak Polish) that Polish idiom for picking up, grasping, holding, or other arm-involving action is best translated as, e.g. “he picked up the telephone with his arm.” Even in English this is not exactly false, it’s just that more specifically, one says “hand” presumably for the Gricean reason that the more specific thing is more relevant. On the other hand, one could argue that you don’t need to use the more specific “hand” (dlon) because, after all, what else are you going to pick up the telephone with? Note that nobody would say, in English, that they picked up a telephone with their fingers, even if that were true, unless you wanted to make a special point.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good point. We don't have interchangeability in the biting and breaking cases. I think those kinds of cases are a minority of the uses, so my claim about "most ordinary contexts" is still correct.

But I now worry that the majority of cases may be close to set phrases, and the translation of set phrases is a different kettle of fish. A piece of pottery will be "hand-made" even if you actually used your feet to shape it.

Maybe what we have in a lot of cases is a gray area between set phrases or metaphors and literal compositional language? "To shake hands" isn't exactly compositional. It's false that two people shake hands just in case they cause each other's hands to shake. They need to be doing this as a gesture or at least in a way that resembles the gesture.

Tom said...

Dr. Pruss:

Given that you're a philosopher of religion and a fairly orthodox Christian theist, I was curious what you thought about this survey on philosophers of religion and theism. Some of it is fairly run of the mill (it's natural for theists to believe God is calling them to some way of life or other), others are more troubling, especially that philosophy of religion causes more of its practitioners to move toward atheism and moderate their theistic beliefs rather than vice versa. I'm not sure if it's specifically in your area of expertise, dealing with the sociology and psychology of philosophers of religion rather than philosophy of religion as such, but you still have plenty of first hand experience in the field and have proven yourself a fine defender of theism.

You might also like/find informative this survey on religious disagreement, done by the same person.

Heath White said...

I think there is quite a lot of metaphor, set phrase, and idiom in ordinary speech. You have to think of the "vocabulary" of an ordinary language speaker as somewhat larger than the smallest set of meaningful words they use. Not everything that looks (or could have been) compositional, is.

True story: in high school, my best friend and I were both on the wrestling team, at the same weight. We often had to wrestle each other. One day, we were up, and the coach told us to shake hands before beginning. We dangled our hands at our sides and shook them vigorously. He knew we were friends so he thought it was pretty funny.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

The Polish word for hand "reka" is so similar to the Latvian word for hand - "roka".

Unknown said...

In non-medical polish we use "dłoń" as a hand and "ręka" as a whole upper limb.

But this is not so easy. If I broke somebody "ręka" it will be fracture from hand to elbow, upper fractures will be refering to broken arm.

So I think that You can use "ręka" as arm only if hand is involved in paricular movement.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks: I hadn't noticed this before, but it sounds exactly right to me.

Unknown said...

It's the same with "leg" vs. "noga". In English you say "You stepped on my foot", but in Polish you say "You stepped on my leg (noga)". I guess I'd say "You stepped on my foot" (Nadepnąłeś mi na stopę) only if I was barefoot, but it would still sound weird. But then there is a huge difference between breaking your noga and breaking your stopa :) Btw. I know that Hindi and Bangla are like Polish.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm not sure that's so clearcut. Google has 53K hits for "nadepnął na nogę" and 42K for "nadepnął na stopę". That's not an enormous difference.

I would be apt to say "nadepnął na stopę", but that may be English-language influence.

I wonder if one difference might not be this. In Polish, "ręka" is felt to include the hand, and "noga" is felt to include the foot. In English, "arm" and "leg" feel more like they're excluding the hand the foot, respectively. This isn't a very strict difference. If we push English speakers, I suspect they will admit that the hand and foot are parts of the arm and leg, respectively.

Anyway, this is all another case of how much of communication is mediated by such things as which word is more often used in which context rather than by the dictionary meaning.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Balto-Slavs of the world unite!

Unknown said...

I personally don't say that I "put shoes on my nogi (legs)", but I was sure I've heard people say that, so I asked Google about "buty na nogi" - 32K hits and Maryla Rodowicz's song "Buty na nogi, makijaż na twarz. Ciao, amore mio!" :)
Indeed, the first idea me and my Hindi and Bangla speaking friends had was that the difference is in how much of the limb the term covers. Similarly, in different languages head/brain/mind are interchangeable to a different extents. In the paper by Bach 1994 'Conversational Implicature', there is note about the difference between 'pragmatic metonymy'("The ham sandwich is getting restless.") and 'semantic metonymy' (tongue - language).

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Latvian is similar to Polish then in its use of roka and kahja. (The "ah" is how one can write the Latvian "a" with the line on top when you have an English keyboard. This was also once a standard way of writing Latvian before the 1930's when the German alphabet was used.) "Roka" can mean either hand or arm. If you put your "roka" on something then you have put your hand on it. A person who has a broken "roka" has a broken arm. "Dieva rokahs" means "In God's hands". To carry something in your "rokahs" can mean to carry it in your hands or carry it in your arms. If you feed your horse a handful of oats, a different word is used. You have fed your horse a "sauja" of oats. Carrying something in one's "sauja" usually means to carry something in one's hands that is like grain or sand etc., where as a book even a small paperback, would be carried in one's "roka". "Kahja" can refer to foot or leg. A swollen "kahja" can mean either a swollen foot or leg. A broken "kahja" usually means broken leg. On a horse, "kahja" can be either leg or hoof (although "nags" is sometimes used). If your horse has an injured leg, he has an injured "kahja". If your horse has a loose shoe on his hoof, you say he has a loose shoe on his "kahja". If he has a thin hoof wall, then he has a thin "nags". If you grew up speaking Latvian you don't even think about it. Until it comes time to post comments like this.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


Balto-Slavs of the world, let's unite over beer and pierogies! :-)