I am super-fascinated by the fact that English speakers cannot accurately describe how something smells and there are languages that can differentiate different shades of color that English speakers cannot see. I know that there is something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but I don’t believe it is 100% true. Yet there are these strange differences in some parts of thought. What is this called in linguistic circles?

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    English speakers cannot accurately describe smells or see colours? That’s news to me. There’s some evidence that having more unrelated simplex terms for shades of colours makes you better at remembering those colours, but your ability to see them depends on your eyes, not your language. Jul 1, 2022 at 21:49
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    The general pattern for African languages is that they have rather small color vocabularies, often not including any (indigenous) word for "green". Setting aside the factual errors, it sounds like you're asking about "linguistic relativity". But that's not about "languages that can't describe things", because there is no such thing.
    – user6726
    Jul 1, 2022 at 22:53
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    Most languages don't have descriptive terms for taste and smell; the chemical senses are normally described with similes ("like a minty grapefruit", "rather like a mango", etc.) involving natural and food odors. There are a few words that are descriptive, but they're mostly about pH or volatility. Colors are a different matter completely.
    – jlawler
    Jul 1, 2022 at 23:13
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    It would take me some time to make this into a proper answer, but just as a quick remark, I will say that the real answer to this question, as formulated in the title, is that such a phenomenon does not exist. Of course, some extraordinary situations (like two very different cultures meeting for the first time) can lead to situations where a community of speakers lacks a concept related to the world of other community, but after some time interacting such gaps are filled, either by loanwords or by using native elements, but without the need to acquire a new language.
    – Qwertuy
    Jul 7, 2022 at 15:59
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    @vectory honestly I'd be more surprised if speakers of any language could accurately describe how something smells. With around 400 different olfactory receptors each of which can respond with varying strengths, properly precise descriptions would be extremely cumbersome to use and so I'd expect all languages to resort to simile (with a handful of exceptions) like English does
    – Tristan
    Jul 7, 2022 at 16:49

2 Answers 2


There’s a lot of nitpicking in the comments about the examples you gave.

But the fact is that certain phenomena - phrases and concepts and distinctions - exist in some language and not others.

Moreover, there are some that exist in most languages (that I know) but missing in a few.

  • hand vs arm in Russian
  • you (singular) vs you (plural) in standard English
  • website vs webpage in German
  • bon appetit in English …

I just call them “holes” in those languages.

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    Or sinij vs goluboj in English, which does have various 2pl pronouns (y'all, yuns, youse, ..), but no polite 2nd person forms. Cultures vary, and so do histories, and language changes from them both (though not precisely with them; language is much slower). But it's not that anything can't be expressed -- everything is expressible, especially if you can point to examples.
    – jlawler
    Jul 7, 2022 at 1:25
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    I agree with @jlawler. Not having a particular lexeme is not the same thing as not having a concept. I think that every concept one language can describe, be it a colour, scent, bodyparts, whatever, other languages can describe as well. I would suggest that most linguistic expression of meaning is carried out via structures larger than single words. Jul 7, 2022 at 2:52
  • Nitpicking again... In practice, yes, there are ways around all of these. But it's not as direct or concise as in the "average" language, which as I always point out is very arbitrary. (Should they be weighted by number of speakers? Do related languages and dialects each get their own count?) Jul 7, 2022 at 5:46
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    @AdamBittlingmayer It´s not "nitpicking" at all. The original question was about not being able at all to describe or perceive something because of your language. That is false. Your answer, while interesting, is a set of anecdotical facts that do not support a radical relativistic hypothesis like "speakers of language X are unable to perceive Y". Of course these "holes" as you call them are interesting, sometimes related to cultural idiosyncrasies and worthy of study, but I do believe it does not address the original question.
    – Qwertuy
    Jul 7, 2022 at 15:53
  • @Qwertuy, this reading of the smelly statement is absurd. Shows that you are arguing against a stereotype, essentially arguing with yourself to reinforce a dogma that pervades linguistics courses today (no language is inferior). The "original" question is poorly defined though. What is "language", nevermind "a language", what is a "single word", what is "thought" or "phenomenon"??? But the Q is not asking explicitly whether "speakers of language X are unable to perceive Y". Ipso facto, you see what you want to see because that's what you know how to talk about. Isn't that quite the irony?
    – vectory
    Jul 7, 2022 at 16:32

Besides the already mentioned term hole there are the terms lexical gap, accidental gap, semantic gap, and lacuna.

  • Though sniglets will certainly be plentiful in any given language, I believe this is very different from "certain languages cannot describe certain concepts", no?
    – Qwertuy
    Jul 7, 2022 at 16:03
  • The terminology question is quite answerable in the format of this site. The general premise is probably wrong: Any language can describe any concept, but some languages need more words of explication tan others for a given concept. And there's a middle ground, touching gestalt psychology (you see what you know/what you can describe and seeing unexpected things is difficult and requires learning new knowledge/a new description). Jul 7, 2022 at 16:31
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    Kai Kupferschmidt (a reliable science journalist) describes in his book "BLUE" experiments concerning the sinij/goluboj distinction in Slavic languages and Greek that show an effect of the native language to some stimuli. Jul 7, 2022 at 16:31

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