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In common English usage people refer to their mass as weight. Nobody says "I mass 75 kilos". Likewise in modern Hebrew.

Do any languages actually use a variation of the phrasing "I foo 75 kilos" in everyday speech, where the word foo refers to the physical concept of mass and not to the force of weight.

Rephrased by jick: Is there any language whose everyday word for "mass/weight" is their physics jargon for "mass", instead of "weight"?

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    This is because "weigh" is a verb and "mass" is a noun. Mass can be measured indirectly through the action of "weighing" something, and the measured value determined by the action of "weighing" is called "weight", also a noun. You wouldn't say "I weight 75 kilos" either, for example.
    – J...
    Mar 24 at 20:20
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    Also, the distinction between weight and mass is not trivial - one is a force and the other is an intrinsic property of an object. Any language that fails to make the distinction cannot effectively communicate science, so you're looking for a language in which science is neither discussed nor taught.
    – J...
    Mar 24 at 23:16
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    When you encounter somebody in the medical field measuring force in kilograms you start wondering if it's not a language thing.
    – Joshua
    Mar 24 at 23:36
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    I would be very surprised to find any language distinguishing weight from mass. That's because all human languages have evolved in a 1-G field, where the weight of a unit mass is constant. Consequently, until one leaves such a field, there is no perceptible difference, and perceptible differences are what languages are about.
    – jlawler
    Mar 25 at 1:50
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    @jlawler English distinguishes weight from mass... with the distinct words "weight" and "mass"... so there's at least one
    – J...
    Mar 25 at 13:37

4 Answers 4

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Not an answer, but I'd like to consider the question from another angle. It's pretty unlikely that a language would have separate everyday words for the physical notion of mass vs. weight. But, once its speakers start to learn modern physics, they obviously need different physics jargon for mass vs. weight. Then the question becomes: Is there any language whose everyday word for "mass/weight" is their physics jargon for "mass", instead of "weight"?

Korean has an analogous example: 힘(him) is an everyday word for "force/power/energy", used in many expressions like "apply a force" (e.g., push something), "is powerful" (e.g., of an engine), "conjure up energy" (e.g., to do homework), "exhausted/out of energy", and so on. However, when you do physics, you obviously can't use the same word for force/power/energy.

Hence, him was chosen to mean "force" in physics. For the physical notion of "power", Korean has a separate jargon, 일률(illyul), but it's such an obscure word that I've never seen it outside of physics textbook.

The end result is that, if you ask "Does Korean use 'force' instead of 'power' to describe how powerful a machine is?" then you could legitimately answer yes. However, it would be also somewhat misleading - it doesn't mean Korean speakers have a deep understanding of the underlying physical concepts and somehow find "acceleration multiplied by mass" (=force) a better match than "energy divided by time" (=power).

It just means that when the first Korean physics textbook was written, the authors decided the word him was a better match for "force" instead of "power", and then they obviously had to make up a different word for the physical concept of "power".

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  • Thank you. Your first paragraph expresses exactly what I meant to express with the question.
    – dotancohen
    Mar 24 at 17:41
  • Yep, this is a very good answer. @dotancohen maybe you can incorporate the clarification here into your question since it's what you're asking?
    – justhalf
    Mar 25 at 5:19
  • I've copied the concise phrasing from this answer into the question, thank you.
    – dotancohen
    Mar 27 at 6:08
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    The Korean example of force/power occurs in Hebrew as well. The hebrew word כח ('koah') seems to exactly match 힘(him) in everyday use, and for the physical power there's a much more technical word הספק (hespek). You use הספק only in physics or when describing appliances - and even the word for power plant is the physically-inaccurate תחנת כח.
    – Jonathan
    Mar 27 at 7:40
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This answer provides likely constraints of how to find that language if it exists. Because the constraints are so restrictive, I suspect that no such language exists.

Unless it is one of the modern constructed languages, I suspect that so such language exists due to the language originating long before the scientific definition of mass was different than that of weight, taking distance from the center of the Earth into account.

It would need to be a language that originated in a culture that had both beam scales (to measure mass independent of the degree of attraction of gravity) and spring scales (or the like) to measure gravitational attraction. Even still, the spring-scale-esque family of devices that measure gravitational attraction are modern inventions, appearing somewhere between 1770 and 1838, depending on which invention we accept as ‘the first one’. Not many nonconstructed natural languages have been fluid enough since 1770 or 1838 to transform long-established words & concepts for such fundamental concepts as: how much matter or how much gravitational attraction does that entity possess/cause?.

It would also need to be a language & culture that extended over enough geographic or topological expanse on Earth that its speakers would notice difference in weight due to altitude for the same mass. Most languages and cultures during the era of formation of their language (other than that of the constructed languages) did not have such an expansive presence across a vast enough region of Earth as to speak the language at both drastically lower and drastically higher altitudes to ever notice an altitude-caused difference in weight in, say, transacting business commerce of any kind—hence needing a mass-only measurement device instead of a gravitational-attraction measuring device across the expanse of its speakers or their frequent direct trading partners.

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    I much appreciate the perspective that you place on the question. Thank you.
    – dotancohen
    Mar 24 at 15:41
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    For weighing gold, it was quite usual to use a beam-scale with weights made of gold under water as well as in air. When the balance in air didn't hold under water as well, it is a clear indication of fake gold. And in German, it is natural to say Gold ist schwerer als Silber "Gold is heavier than silver" to express the physical concept of density, i.e. "Gold has a higher density than silver". Mar 25 at 13:45
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    “long before the scientific definition of mass was different than that of weight, taking distance from the center of the Earth into account” – it's not just about that. Before general relativity, there wasn't really any reason why gravitational and inertial mass would always be the same (equivalence principle), and earlier people had little understanding of whether mass was linked to quantity of substance at all (until Lavoisier's experiments). Mar 27 at 19:48
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In Hindi, we use 'bhaar'(भार) for weight. It is a force in physics. But, like weight, it is also used for mass. Bhaar has come from Sanskrit. Bhaar >>> Bar (Latin).

In physics, mass is called 'Maatra' (मात्रा) or occasionally 'Pindamaan' (पिण्डमान) -- literally "value of the body".

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  • Thank you Doctor. It seems from your description that the colloquial Hindi word used with "N kilograms" is the physics jargon for "weight", just like English. Thus this does not answer the question.
    – dotancohen
    Mar 29 at 7:42
  • By "Bar (Latin)" do you mean the unit of pressure? Because that's from Greek βάρος, not Latin, and isn't at all related to Sanskrit भार, but actually cognate with गुरु guru (and Latin gravis). (Also I don't actually speak Hindi but AFAIK mass in the physics sense is द्रव्यमान dravyamān and मात्रा, if it is applied in this context, just means any physical quantity.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Mar 29 at 22:40
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Frame Challenge

When someone says "I weigh 75 kilograms" they are not necessarily using the wrong verb: assume the verb is correct, but they have chosen the wrong unit of measure.

Saying "I weigh 75 Decanewtons" would be approximately correct scientifically, and having the force unit in common usage would alleviate the need to evolve two different verbs.

Are you trying to find out if there is a language where speakers' casual expression of their favorite body metric is scientifically proper?

If so, one could argue that the question is improperly framed, and could be re-stated as is there a language where everyday speakers routinely use a unit of force to express their weight?

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  • +1. "I weigh 75 kilograms" are more of a "I weigh equal to 75 kilograms". Using kilograms as units is the usual way of differentiating mass and force. There are a lot of countries that discourages the use of mass units as force units, e.g. kgf and lbf. Mar 27 at 16:38
  • @user3528438 Yeah, in fact, I think the first weighing scales measured mass, by comparing on two plates.
    – Pablo H
    Mar 28 at 14:57

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