How do you say “Way too many”?

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, thirteen indigenous languages are spoken. (This in addition to Spanish.)

In Oaxaca city, working with a group of preschool teachers who were making handmade readers for their students, we posed a question: How, in your various languages, would you express quantity: words like “lots,” “a few,” “some,” “a bunch”?

They grinned and asked us back: What are you referring to? Because in our languages it depends whether you’re talking about a lot/few/some/bunch of:

Long, skinny objects

Round objects

Animals

Fingers

Stuff that is neither close nor far away

Things we used to have

Things we might have someday

and so on.

I was humbled. Until then I had felt smug about the precision of my prose.

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5 thoughts on “How do you say “Way too many”?”

  1. Interesting. Though it is my understanding that English has the most words of any language. So it seems that while English may be less precise than the Oaxacan languages in quantity words, don’t discount the possibility of immense precision in English.

  2. Of course; English is immensely precise, but in different ways. It’s hard to see one’s language from inside it.

    A Zuni cook told me that the word for “pumpkin,” if you broke it down per Zuni linguistics, means “round thing that just sits there.” Perfectly true of pumpkin, which I don’t care for except as pie.

  3. Great blog.
    I love hearing about instances like this.

    I sometimes run into this frustrating problem when I write, since I’ve lived in several countries and speak (at varying levels) several languages. (None of them fluently.) Sometimes I know the perfect word, in Portuguese for example, but there isn’t the word in English and so it takes several words to describe the same concept.

    1. In Spanish, for example: “madrugada,” which in English translates as “the wee small hours of the morning.” “Madrugarse,” “to stay up until the wee small hours of the morning.” The songs of the late Argentine folksinger Atahualpa Yupanqui are full of references to la madrugada–and his moody, passionate music is exactly what one would sing in the wee smalls.

  4. Mmm, this reminds me of measure words in Chinese, which I am learning. We do have a few things like this: a pinch of salt, a bale of hay, a snippet of hair, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows etc… in Chinese there are whole dictionaries of “measure words” which of course don’t really “measure” but qualify even one of an item. A word for long thin things, a word for things that are chunks etc etc… 😀

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