I wonder if the idea underlying the concept of “lexical gap” is indeed a feasible one. This definitely touches upon a subject we approached here in some occasions, namely reference, but also upon how linguistic intuition works. I use now the word ‘linguistic intuition’ in a broad, Chomskyan sense of “the competence of you, Mr. Native Language User, to assign features to linguistic expressions”. This competence could be applied to purely syntactical attributes such as ‘grammaticality’, to take Chomsky’s example, but can also refer to less technical issues such as “meaningful”, “appropriate”, “funny” etc. A linguistic theory, according to this view, is ‘feasible’ if it is non-contradictory and it meets the speaker’s intuition when assigning these features.
Let us assume now that there-should-be-a-word-for-it-ness is such a feature and thus has a corresponding competence of assigning it. It is this – or partly the use of this – intuition that makes Hank ask “What’s the word for when there should be a word for something but there isn’t?” However, as with grammaticality or appropriateness, the prior question is “Is there such feature as X?”. One has to assume that there is such feature as ‘grammaticality’ (= the syntactically correct vs.. the syntactically incorrect) in order for a linguistic theory to be able to asses linguistic expressions (= to say ‘this is grammatically correct’, ‘this is incorrect’ etc.). Note that the feature should not necessarily be a binary one. In the case of appropriateness, an expression could be more or less appropriate in a certain context.
Then Hank’s steps are pretty intuitive. ‘What’s the word for non-virgin?’ ‘What’s the Romanian word for shallow?’ etc. If there-should-be-a-word-for-it-ness is assumed as such, then it feels perfectly normal to have a symbol for a referent which we know it’s there. If we discover a new plant, wouldn’t we christen it? If we discover a new plant that suddenly becomes very very common around the world, wouldn’t we have even more reasons to christen it? I believe the answer to both these questions is Yes, but that this does not do justice to generalizing there-should-be-a-word-for-it-ness into a linguistic feature. I’m not very certain where the line should be drawn, but I think that there certainly is such a line.
For instance, why shouldn’t we have an adjective for “looking-like-a-tree”? Why shouldn’t we have a verb for “waking-up-very-late-and-producing-a-very-noisy-yawn”? These do not seem just as usual (more the less necessary), do they? So how do we allocate the feature there-should-be-a-word-for-it ? It is a truism that the relation between the symbols and the referent is purely arbitrary. In other words, it just happens that we call a chair ‘a chair’ and there’s nothing a priori about it, i.e., there’s nothing logically inconsistent with using the symbol ‘zum Ghhc4’ for the object which we perceive as having the qualities of what-we-now-know-as-a-chair. But does this mean that we can go around ascribing words to the world? I feel that the answer is No simply because I feel that there is no need for a verb ‘feel-that-the-answer-is-No’-ing, just as we are perfectly comfortable with using noun-phrases (e.g. definite descriptions such as ‘the man with a black jacket’) instead of simple nouns.