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What concepts do not exist in the English language?
September 27, 2004 7:11 PM   Subscribe

What concepts do not exist in the English language? [mi]

Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slow) says Canada's Baffin Island Inuit "use the same word—'uvatiarru'—to mean both 'in the distant past' and 'in the distant future.' Time, in such cultures, is always coming as well as going."

In an essay by Louise Edrich (Two Languages in Mind, but Just One in the Heart), she writes about learning Ojibwemownin and how "nouns are mainly desginated as alive or dead, animate or inanimate...once I began to think of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting iteslf in my hand."

I'm fascinated by language reflecting culture and vice versa. Any reference you've run across in passing or even know about as a multi-lingual MeFite is welcome. Moreover, if English isn't your primary language, what words/concepts made you take pause?
posted by pedantic to Writing & Language (80 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
the japanese have a different counting system depending on whether the objects being counted are oblate, prolate, or neither oblate nor prolate. (as far as i remember - someone will correct me on this, i imagine). which at the time i found out, blew my mind.
posted by nylon at 7:25 PM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

It's that whole Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Among my fellow translators, the idea that there are concepts alien to any give language is scorned. Concepts that are more readily expressed in one language than another, sure.

Japanese, for example, has a word for blue (aoi), and a word for green (midori), but uses "aoi" in many situations where we'd use "green." Stoplights, greengrocers, and a sick person's skin are all aoi. Japanese people don't perceive color differently, they're really just using an earlier form of color descriptions that at their most primitive are "warm" and "cold."

Japanese has a more fine-grained concept of "there": "over where you are" and "where neither you nor I are."

The Japanese word "kondo" frustratingly can mean "this time," "last time," or "next time"--it's all understood in context.
posted by adamrice at 7:29 PM on September 27, 2004 [2 favorites]

Interesting question, although I wonder how you could express a concept that does not exist in English, in English. When I lived in Japan, I was (understandably) quite interested in languages, and was happy to learn of something Wittgenstein said: "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." It fit in with what I was learning about Japanese, namely, that there are things in Japanese that simply don't make sense when translated into English, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, while I once had some specific examples of this to trot out when asked about it, I've lived with Japanese and English too long to really remember what doesn't translate between them well. One thing I do remember, though, is a conversation with my English-only Australian boss and a bilingual Japanese salesman I worked with. My boss wanted to know how to tell one of his Japanese employees something, and both the salesman and I insisted that, although you could put that "something" into grammatically correct Japanese, a Japanese speaker wouldn't understand the concept. The most intersting thing, though, was the enormous difficulty we had in convincing the boss that his simple English idea had no meaning in the Japanese worldview. IIRC, we never actually did convince him, but at least we dissuaded him from a confusing and pointless exchange with the other employee.

No, unfortunately, I don't remember what the "something" was. Sorry.
posted by spacewrench at 7:31 PM on September 27, 2004

There was a discussion about "saudade" (portugues) on Metafilter a while back. Miguel has brought up a few others.

I find that the terms "mana" and "tapu" don't have easy analogues in English as I came to understand them in Samoan, even though they have been borrowed into English. Mana is used as a gauge of magical power in games, but in Samoan, I got a picture of a vector of quasi-social, quasi-mystical energy, behind which is sum of a person's social relationships with others. Tapu... maybe it's not much different. But it's not a merely a social convention. Or maybe it's that there's not much "mere" about social conventions in Samoa. Because everybody's charged with Mana. ;)
posted by weston at 7:33 PM on September 27, 2004

There are heaps of Korean ideas which can only clumsily be expressed in English - kibeun, han, chemyeon, neunchi, bunuiki, and jeong, for a few examples.

Thor May explains them thus, and quite well :
Perhaps the most useful summary in Oak & Martin's book for non-Koreans is the explanation of six controlling concepts : chemyeon, neunchi, kibun, bunuiki, jeong and han. The matrix of these elements determines the relationship of the group to an individual; (note that in this traditional Korean equation individual importance is inferior to that of the group). Successfully managing the six elements is the key to satisfactory living, the authors say. [... ]

Still, we need to know what these magic names mean. Chemyeon is closely related to the Western concept of face (myeon translates as face). However, chemyeon is vastly more important than the mere problem of saving personal embarrassment. Any personal failure is a loss of chemyeon both to the individual and to those groups in which he is embedded. Your sensitivity to preserving other people's chemyeon according to their position and values is a critical test of your civilized behaviour. Thus, to refuse a drink, for example, might be seen as an attack on the hospitality of a host. The name of the game is balance, or harmony : all participants should contribute to maintaining a kind of emotional comfort zone. Of course, if you have no relationship with another party (Oak and Martin curiously do not discuss this), you have little risk of either losing chemyeon or causing them to lose it. The countless Korean drivers who park anywhere, blocking roads, walkways and locking in other cars seem outrageously selfish to an insensitive foreigner like me, but they clearly conceive of no civic obligation to an anonymous community which does not engage their chemyeon.

Neunchi is a formalized ideal of the sensitivity we probably all hope for but often fail to achieve. Neunchi is the ability to read the sub-text, the implicit messages in a social situation, and then (this is the Korean part) react in a way which preserves the chemyeon of the other person. Oak & Martin cite the example of a teacher who asks a question, then perceiving that the student can't answer it, deflects the question to another student. This not only saves the first student's chemyeon, but boosts the (Confucian) authority of the wise teacher and wins student loyalty to their superior. [...]

Kibun is variously translated as the mood or vitality or life-force of a person. When the kibun is sour, body and mind are felt to be adversely affected. You have an obligation to be sensitive to the kibun of other members in your group, even if your own kibun is frail. Thus you do not refuse that shot of soju which is going to put you under the table. You keep the jolly spirit of the party and preserve your host's chemyeon by accepting it graciously. But then, being desperate, you don't drink. The host, using his neunchi to understand your situation, is deeply grateful for your help in saving everyone's kibun.

A close relative of kibun is bunuiki, which is the business of preserving atmosphere or mood in a social relationship. Nothing uniquely Korean about that, but again it is the consequence of being a party-pooper which gives these two ideas a pivotal place in the Korean worldview. In a perfect Korean relationship, nothing should threaten the integrity of the group, for the group (not the individual) is ideally the measure of all that is humanly valuable. The goal of bunuiki is generally to be convivial, but perhaps because it is a conscious obligation, the outcomes are planned. You don't hunker down in little circles of friends at a party. Everyone sticks together in one big group and plays the programmed games. Spontaneity is not expected.

OK, OK, back to the real world (I'm a pathological party-pooper) : at least for an outsider, there often seems to be an extreme duality in Korean relationships. As the new friendship/association/party/job starts off we are all out there in the wide, sunny blue yonder. The bunuiki positively bubbles with generosity/optimism/boundless ambitions. But the strain of smiling so widely seemingly can't last. Someone stubs their toe on a small problem, and suddenly the whole mood turns upside down. Bitterness, recrimination and paranoia are in the stars. Korean politics, for those who can bear to look, is a perfect pantomime stage for these sagas of love and hate.


While chemyeon, neunchi and bunuiki are played on the wing in social games, what a Korean takes home is his abiding knowledge of attachment to other people, and his seething resentment for all the injustices the world has inflicted on him. The first idea, that of attachment, is called cheong, and the second, the bad vibes, is called han.

The balance of cheong attachments may be best reserved for those which involve affection, but it can also include work colleagues and others who may even be disliked, but to whom there are nevertheless extended obligations. While cheong has some cost, it is also a source of security and satisfaction. Your cheong partners, notably your family and close friends, are those whose company you will seek, and who will extend you help in times of difficulty. Although cheong is a Korean label, it's substance is of course found in every world culture to varying degrees.

Chinese and other East Asians easily recognize the Korean idea of cheong, but are apt to complain (like most other "foreigners") that in business or pleasure it is frequently impossible to enter a Korean cheong relationship -- Korean ethnicity is too often an absolute qualification. In the West we talk about acquaintances, and friends of varying intimacy. In modern urban societies, the actual rules for forming these friendships are anything but clear, and they can be quite unstable over time. Some people never master the trick at all, so anomie is a recognized social ailment. Also, some individuals are so adapted to non-attachment that they are fairly contented 'loners' (I probably qualify). Non-attachment is pretty close to a Confucian idea of evil, or at least extreme selfishness. Yet one suspects that the reality of life for the new Korea's intensely urbanized population may not be so different from New York or Dusseldorf. Korean ideology may not have the words to talk about anomie and the single life yet, but daily existence for many is surely already ahead of the language.

Then there is the bad news, the devil in the cellar of your soul, the han. Perhaps han is an ego trying to get out of its box. For a stereotyped Korean at least, when chemyeon goes into deficit, there's a lot of han about. Inevitably in a collectivist society, the individual gets trodden on, and has to suppress personal hopes and priorities. This generates resentment, but the social architecture does not sanction a constructive way for the resentment to be dissipated. The black bile of han brews in it's witch's pot, and has been blamed for everything from explosive driving habits to the chronic alcoholism endemic in the culture. Korea's history itself, a small nation caught as a buffer state between ravaging giants, gives Korean nationalism han on a grand scale (which makes the objective telling of history extremely difficult even for supposedly independent Korean historians). Much Korean literature is built around the dramas generated by han.

posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:34 PM on September 27, 2004 [30 favorites]

I'd note that anyone interested in Korea or Korean culture work to get a handle on these concepts, which are far more elusive to pin down than it would seem from Thor's explanation. Very very few outsiders here do, and your attempts will be richly rewarded.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:37 PM on September 27, 2004

Mana is used as a gauge of magical power in games, but in Samoan, I got a picture of a vector of quasi-social, quasi-mystical energy, behind which is sum of a person's social relationships with others.
So it's like that whuffie (whiffie?) thing that the BoingBoing guy writes about.

We don't really have any concise terms for schaudenfreude in english, for one. I'm sure there are lots more.
posted by amberglow at 7:40 PM on September 27, 2004

amberglow: where? I'm interested.
posted by weston at 7:44 PM on September 27, 2004

stavros reminded me of (and could probably tell us more about) this article on babies learning English vs. Korean language concepts:

"The distinction between a tight fit versus a loose fit is marked in Korean but not in English. A cap on a pen would be a tight fit relationship, while a pen on a table would be a loose fit relationship. English does not mark this distinction in the same way, instead emphasizing the “containment” versus “support” relationship, for example: the coffee is in the mug or the mug is on the table."
posted by falconred at 7:56 PM on September 27, 2004 [2 favorites]

This is great.

adamrice: I'm aware of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I'm not particluarly interested in the theory itself, but the concepts captured in language.

Even though translations are oft clumsy and context is lost, there's something there. It's fun to see where languages/cultures condense abstract thought.
posted by pedantic at 8:02 PM on September 27, 2004

this should be a start, weston : >
posted by amberglow at 8:02 PM on September 27, 2004

From The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (a great read for language lovers):

"Both French and German can distinguish between knowledge that results from recognition (respectively connaître and kennen) and knowledge that results from understanding (savoir and wissen). Portuguese has words that differentiate between an interior angle and an exterior one. All the Romance languages can distinguish between something that leaks into and something that leaks out of. The Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino) while the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, not to be outdone, have a word for the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky (sgriob). And we have nothing in English to match the Danish hugge (meaning "instantly satisfying and cozy")."

Elsewhere in the book he explains that the English language has a certain difficulty in distinguishing desire from accomplishment in the past tense. An example he uses is the phrase "I went to the store to buy a shirt". It's not clear whether or not a shirt was actually purchased. But in certain creoles based on English, such ambiguities are impossible. In Hawaiian creole, if you bought the shirt you would say, "I bin store go buy shirt", but if you didn't buy the shirt you would say, "I bin store for buy shirt."
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:07 PM on September 27, 2004

People always say the French term l'esprit de escalier does not have an English equivalent; it means the feeling you get after leaving a (usually emotional) conversation and you think of all the things you should have said.

(However, it translates nicely into the spirit of the staircase, and once you imagine the staircase as leading down and away from, say, an apartment where you and your lover had an arguement, it works fine for me. So I'm always confused when it's cited as an example of inter-language incompatibility.)
posted by samh23 at 8:09 PM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

A few comments:

* There are very few/no cases where it can be shown that language determines the concepts available to a speaker. This has been extensively studied, for instance, in terms of color recognition in e.g. language in Papua New Guinea/Austronesian languages. Most of these languages have a radically different set of color words than English, but time and time again, experimental studies have shown that they can differentiate/remember the same sets of colors as speakers of, say, English. I wish I could give citations but unfortunately the relevant notebook is buried in storage right now.

* To those, on preview, who talk about color terms in other languages - you have to separate what it means to be able to name a color, and what it means to perform tasks like differentiating the color from others, remember the color (as opposed to confusing it for ones which you have names for).

* It is unclear how the Inuit example reflects at all on what concepts are available to speakers. English has words southernmost, westernmost, leftmost, and so on. It also has farthest, meaning; in any direction. Would it mean anything about how we think if we were lacking one of these classes? Does it mean anything that we have both? I would wager that some trying to experimentally determine whether there was any correlation between what words for time exist in inuit and an inuit speaker's perception of time, would find nothing.

* Note that the Ojibwe example is by an adult language learner. The process by which adults and children < age 12 learn language is radically different - the adult version being more like brute force memorization, and the children version being a kind of learning that is specific to language. so this woman's experiences, while valid experiences, don't necessarily mean anything about what it is actually like to be a native speaker of the language. true comparisons require someone who is a native speaker of both languages, or an objective way of normalizing between native speakers of the two>
* It's not that English lacks the concept of animacy/inanimacy, any more than many Native American languages "lack" the concept of male/female. Each language has simply a different kind of grammatical gender. Some languages have no grammatical gender at all - I believe mandarin chinese is one of these (it at least has genderless pronouns). I highly doubt this causes them to look upon either male/female or animate/inanimate distinctions differently.

* On preview, most of the "missing" concepts would seem to me to be, roughly, religious terms, or names for cultural concepts. That is, regarding the examples about etiquette in Korean: this is a place where the cultures differ. Of course it's going to be hard to translate nouns that refer to cultural concepts into a language spoken in a culture where those concepts don't exist! I don't think this tells us anything about the languages, though. The same holds for religion. However, consider the fact that Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Hindi, and various other languages have more or less the right vocabulary to discuss buddhism. These languages are all dramatically unrelated, but there is a historically shared part of their cultures.

* On 2nd preview: um, how about "I went to the store and bought a shirt"...
posted by advil at 8:10 PM on September 27, 2004

Advil, that works for if you DID buy a shirt, but try a simple past-tense sentence in which you did NOT buy the shirt without actually saying, "I didn't buy it".
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:12 PM on September 27, 2004

Recently I had a Finnish person try and explain the idea of sisu, a kind of Finnish national trait, to me. The description in English clearly did not capture the essence of the idea.
posted by notme at 8:16 PM on September 27, 2004

Spanish has ser and estar, two different senses of the verb to be. Non native speakers have a bitch of a time learning the difference, and even otherwise fluent learners will confuse the two.

Generally, estar refers to transient states of being, while ser refers to permanent, essential aspects. So, estar is used to translate "I am here", but ser for "I am a man". THe difference is not so clearcut, however, for instance you use ser for "I am the first in line", even though that is hardly a permanent position.

Also, it is very different to "estar aburrido" (be bored), than to "ser aburrido" (be boring).
Spanish also distinguishes between knowledge gained by direct experience and indirectly (conocer and saber). This distinction also exists in German and, I think, French.

Spanish does not distinguish between make and do, using hacer for both, and Spanish speaking people learning English have a hard time trying to understand this.
posted by signal at 8:17 PM on September 27, 2004

There's also the gender of nouns. Growing up in Canada learning French in school, I was often curious what the innate difference between, say, a table and refrigerator was that made one feminine and the other masculine.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:26 PM on September 27, 2004

I have Scandinavian heritage and live in Minnesota, so sisu seems familial. However, with apologies to Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas and Canada—I don't feel the need to be particularly gutsy.

I found this on sisu. It has a subtlety difficult to translate. Not that I get it, but can sense what they're trying to get to.
posted by pedantic at 8:45 PM on September 27, 2004

I still don't get that whole giving objects a gender thing. Whose idea was that?
posted by amberglow at 8:45 PM on September 27, 2004

I'm loving this thread.

I was going to throw in all those non-English words that have been adopted by English speakers as examples, but it's not the concept that is alien is it, just the word. We may not have a word for "je ne sais quoi," say, but we get the concept.

I wish I could explain this, but it's not something I've ever really articulated to myself, but I think about things differently when thinking/reading/speaking in another language. There's a sort of cultural attitude toward the world that is bound up in language. I wish I could give you a concrete example but it's not a concrete kind of thing.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:45 PM on September 27, 2004

Leaving aside the hifalutin' examples, I was immmediately smitten with the Japanese adjectives pari-pari and saku-saku, which describe something hard-crispy like a rice cracker and something soft-crispy like fried chicken, respectively.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:59 PM on September 27, 2004

I've just started my first term at an English university, after having been in a completely french school system all my life. Growing up, I was always completely bilingual, having one English parent (dad) and one French parent (mom).

I noticed that in math class, I always think of variable names in French. When I "say" the problems in my head, they're said in French. I don't see this effect anywhere else, as I normally tend to "think" in whatever language I'm speaking at the time. I think maybe that it's just a force of habit, having gone through years of French math instruction, but the first math test I took here I was still somewhat surprised to "hear" myself speaking French.

About the gender specification of nouns (speaking from a French perspective): It seems as natural to me as it does strange to you. You can just "know" the right gender for a particular object. I guess that's probably due to brainwashing as a kid. People coming from English to French at a later stage in life tend to mix them up quite often, as they have no logical basis to determine which is correct.

Great thread.
posted by mrgavins at 9:05 PM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

the Japanese adjectives pari-pari and saku-saku

Korean is full of doubled-up adjectives (there's a technical term for it that I can't recall at the moment) like that too, ones that describe precisely things that in English require much more longwinded description.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:08 PM on September 27, 2004

You know what's scary? You can forget those genders. I grew up bilingual French and English and knew them automatically. But it's been years since I've really spoken French and now I sometimes have no idea if the damn thing in question is masculine or feminine.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:10 PM on September 27, 2004

but is there any basis (logical or otherwise) for assigning one gender to one object and another to another? Even if it's sexist? Like things in a house are all female (domestic, bla, bla, bla) but things in an office or workplace are male?
posted by amberglow at 9:11 PM on September 27, 2004

advil: I highly doubt this causes them to look upon either male/female or animate/inanimate distinctions differently.

Very good point. I understand and agree with concepts not select to a language. Experience removes the barrier (language). This is more or less why I asked the question...accelerated learning, if you will.

planetkyoto's example is perfect. I get it, but never bothered to think about crispiness types; it'll make for an amusing "observation" over dinner.

What do you think drove the etymology of male/female or animate/inanimate lexicon? Was it serendipity? Convenience? An adult learning language sees structure, in the case of Ms. Erdrich. There's definitley a method. Is its purpose merely for structure?
posted by pedantic at 9:16 PM on September 27, 2004

Not that I know of, amberglow. Machines are feminine and Dresses are masculine in Spanish for example. It'll generally be the same across Romance languages but not always. I'd guess it depends more on the derivation of the word than on any true gender association.

It's funny. It seems so intuitive when you learn the language as a kid, but it took learning English to be able to see the whole gendered objects thing as peculiar in any way.
posted by vacapinta at 9:22 PM on September 27, 2004

amberglow: There's no clearly apparent logical basis.

Feminine: Spoon, table, chair
Masculine: Refigerator, bowl, knife

Try here, here or here for more info.
posted by mrgavins at 9:26 PM on September 27, 2004

I'm fairly certain that there is no English word for the opposite of 'to want'. Latin has volo (I want) and nolo. But nolo doesn't mean "I don't want." To say "I don't want" implies that wanting is not present. It doesn't describe what is present. Nolo implies an active 'diswanting' and I've yet to find a proper English word for that. In practice 'don't want' is used for this meaning but it's obviously a kludge.

Remember Mikey from the Life cereal commercial? "He won't eat it - he hates everything!"

But I feel sure he doesn't "hate" everything - he just nolle everything.

Such a basic concept - it boggled me when I first realized it was completely absent from English, 18 years or so ago. If I've missed finding the obvious word in that interval, please let me know.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:38 PM on September 27, 2004

Que es mas macho, pineapple o knife?
Pineapple es mas macho que knife.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:39 PM on September 27, 2004

There may be no proper word for it, but "Oh, I couldn't!" or "I'd better not!" mean "I do don't want."
posted by five fresh fish at 9:42 PM on September 27, 2004

My favorite foreign-word-that-should-have-an-English-equivalent-but-doesn't-because-we -suck is taken from Danish.

The word is hyggelig, pronounced hooguelee (kind of). The definition is kind of hard to explain, but very easy to understand. It's warm and comfy, small and cozy, feeling at ease and well-being. happy and content -- all those things.

The Germans have a word that's similar -- gemuetlich (geh-MUTE- lich).

Favorite Japanese word: haragei -- it means unspoken communication -- body gestures, the way you look at someone, etc.

Favorite Swedish word: lagom -- basically it means "exactly right", but it can be used to describe an intangible, for instance, when you cook a meal for someone and it comes out exactly right, but you couldn't say specifically why.

Favorite random-nation word: mokita. It's a New Guinean word that refers to when a group of people are all together, and they're all thinking the same thing, but nobody's saying it. This is a kick-ass word.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:47 PM on September 27, 2004

L'esprit d'escalier corresponds to the German Treppenwitz, which is the perfect witty reposte you come up with when it's too late--on the stairs on your way out.

Schadenfreude is an interesting example. English may lack a succinct way of expressing it, but everybody immediately understands the notion of being pleased by somebody else's misfortune.

Gemütlichkeit is often cited as another word that supposedly lacks a direct corollary--it's has to do with being comfy, and with a social ease and atmosphere similar to what the Irish call good crack. (Oh, I see C_D covered this one already.)

Actually, I think there are a million of these between any given two languages, words and tiny differences in the way phrases are constructed that suggest subtle differences in the way we assume the world works. Minutes stuff, like ein Foto machen (making a picture) vs. taking a picture. When you get down to it, differing etymologies reveal a lot, also. I think it's a given that all sorts of assumptions ossify into language, and that we reenact those assumptions when we use the language.
posted by muckster at 10:13 PM on September 27, 2004

more on lagom here
I honestly have no idea how I would describe it to a foreigner. I've tried, but there's always something missing.
posted by mr.marx at 10:16 PM on September 27, 2004

Favorite French word-gender assignment: le vagin (yes, "vagina" is masculine).
posted by falconred at 10:24 PM on September 27, 2004

In my language, Swedish, there's the word "mätt" which is the opposite of hungry, it means "I have eaten and I'm not hungry anymore". As far as I know, there's no English equivalent.
posted by Termite at 10:25 PM on September 27, 2004

A few examples from Maori:

- different words for "we" and "they" depending on whether you are including the person you are addressing or not.
- different possessive words depending on whether you are in a controlling relationship with the thing possessed (this is a complete bastard for native English speakers, see here for an overview)
- different words for demonstratives of location depending on their proximity to the speaker or the listener. (eg, teenei, next to me, teenaa, next to you, teeraa, over there).
- things are tapu or noa, which could be translated as sacred vs holy, or clean vs unclean, but shouldn't. (your head is tapu, as is raw food, but tapu is also relative, some things are more tapu than others, and things that are tapu can be rendered noa by contact with other things that are noa. Kind of like kosher and treyf, but with a hierarchy).

When I learned German, what drove me to distraction was conversational particles (doch, mal, halt, ja, eben, etc). These are words that impart spin to a sentence, often a different meaning depending on the speaker's intonation, but it can be very difficult to explain just how or what. The closest analogue in English would be words like "just" or "even". German is richer in these words. (I believe ancient Greek is even more so). During my brief phase of real German fluency in my early 20s I would find myself struggling in English for a German particle.

Interjections and exclamations are neat.

amberglow: "gender" is a curly one. Some languages really do classify based on sex. Other languages have classes of noun that are based on other classifications (and they can be just about as weird as Borges' Chinese emperor's encyclopedia). Yet others have classes of noun that are based on phonetic principles (eg if the main stressed vowel is /o/, put it in class I). And worst of all, most languages that have gender operate on all of those principles at once. Eg in German, which I know somewhat, most female things are feminine gender. But dimutives are neuter, so "Maedchen" (girl) is neuter. Also, a whole class of monosyllable nouns with certain vowels is also neuter, so even worse "Weib" (the older word for woman) is neuter. Most nouns borrowed from English are masculine, all abstract nouns ending in "-ung" are feminine... you get the idea. Say a language at one time has one rigid, sensible classification scheme. Over time, people's speech patterns change, and the scheme stops making much sense, so newer speakers "reanalyse" a more sensible scheme.

Termite, how is "mätt" different from "full"?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:31 PM on September 27, 2004

Yiddish terms that don't really natively exist in English but which are understood well enough once you explain them:

Chutzpah: meaning nerve or audacity or balls, but in both a good and bad kind of way, both shocking but also almost admirable.

Makheteyneste / macha tayna: the parents of your child's spouse (no, not your in-laws, which are your spouse's parents)

Shlemazel: a chronically unlucky person, usually the victim of a schlemiel.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:44 PM on September 27, 2004

We don't really have any concise terms for schaudenfreude in english, for one.

Well, there's "schadenfreude."
posted by kindall at 10:48 PM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

There are very few/no cases where it can be shown that language determines the concepts available to a speaker.

Wasn't there a recent discussion about a society somewhere missing words for cardinal numbers? That's really going to do some damage to available mathematical concepts.

In addition, I think language shapes certain intersections. An example a friend and I talked about in college had to do with odd turns/ connections made via homophone: "the wind blew/the wind blue."
posted by weston at 10:52 PM on September 27, 2004

Noun genders in French are often more closely related to the sound of the word than its meaning. For example, any word ending in -été or -tion is feminine.

Spanish has two different past tenses: one for actions at a specific time in the more distant past, and one for actions that continue into the present or happened at an indefinite time. I had a lot of trouble with the concept, and apparently people use them differently in Madrid and Barcelona. French has a similar construction, but the more distant past tense is only used in literary writing.

In French, se débrouiller means to improvise a solution to a problem, or to manage things on your own. A less polite synonym is se démmerder (literally, to unshit yourself). A schéma directeur is a kind of high-level strategy document that seems to have no other purpose than bureaucratic ass-covering (I never did figure it out, although companies in France seem to think it's very important). Déjà vu is, well, deja vu.

Some American words that have no good French equivalent because they don't get the concept: binge, dating, making out.

This book has a short chapter on words for emotions that are particular to one language (like saudade).
posted by fuzz at 11:10 PM on September 27, 2004

Termite, how is "mätt" different from "full"?

Or "sated"?
posted by Guy Smiley at 11:28 PM on September 27, 2004


My favorite way of explaining this word is to speak of the man on trial for the murder of both of his parents. When the judge asks him if he has any final words before sentencing he asks the judge to go easy on him because he's an orphan. That's chutzpah! ;)
posted by dobbs at 11:45 PM on September 27, 2004

finnish is cool because there's just one third-person singular pronoun - gender is left to context. as in, "i like joe, hän is a lovely person" or, even better, "i like joe's partner, hän is a lovely person".

this makes me strangely proud.
posted by hannala at 12:43 AM on September 28, 2004

I like the fact that Turkish has 2 different words for "why" (both of which are contained in the English word): "neden" meaning "from what" eg, "What is the cause of..?" and "nicin", literally "for what?" as in "what is the purpose of?". So there's two different words for the root cause and the teleos.
posted by Pericles at 1:01 AM on September 28, 2004

The Spanish word rico, usually translated as tasty, can be used to characterize many pleasurable sensations. From a nice smell or a nice texture to a catchy rhythm or some pleasant weather.
People are usually amused when they find out that it is used both at the table and in bed. (Que rico, indeed!)
posted by golo at 2:05 AM on September 28, 2004

Correggerme se sbaglio...

Amare (to love) is used to define said emotion strictly between couples in Italian. The ubiquitous English phrases along the lines of "I love spaghetti" or "I love Umberto Eco (as an author)" are replaced by Mi piace... (Foo gives me pleasure) or the more hyperbolic Adoro... (I adore). Family members and friends generally use Ti voglio bene (I want well for you) to express affection.

And along more profane lines it takes 7 words to say...

...cocktease in italian: una ragazza che provoca ma non conclude
...bocchinara in english: a woman who likes to give blowjobs/ a whore who specialises in giving blowjobs

Though for the profane, nothing quite beats Mig's explaination of the various Portuguese fucks which I can't currently locate...
posted by romakimmy at 5:24 AM on September 28, 2004

posted by andrew cooke at 5:50 AM on September 28, 2004

golo: rico / a also applies to sexual attractiveness, at least in Chile. So a mina rica, is a hot chick.

One thing which confuses non-native spanish speakers about gender is that not all words that end in "a" are female or all words that end in "o" male. No matter how good their pronounciation or vocabulary is, you can spot non-native speakers by constructions like "la problema".
posted by signal at 6:06 AM on September 28, 2004

There is a German word for being, right, correct, in its appropriate place—the idea is of doing something the correct and efficient way. Does anyone know what it is? It did make me love Germans.

Good thread.
posted by dame at 6:21 AM on September 28, 2004

Now I understand why my learned-German-as-adults-but-before-I-was-born parents used to use the word gemütlich all the time but almost no other German words.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:21 AM on September 28, 2004

In English, I find the word "next" to be ambiguous when referring to future dates. For instance, if it's Wednesday and my wife mentions "next weekend", I think she means in 3 days time, and she means in 10 days. Do other languages suffer from this?
posted by salmacis at 6:33 AM on September 28, 2004

There's an African language -- probably way more than just one, no doubt -- that uses two different words for dead when talking about people. One means just what you'd expect it to, but another means not only is that person dead, but everybody else who knew that person is dead also.

Does this ring a bell with anyone?
posted by alumshubby at 7:13 AM on September 28, 2004

You might enjoy They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases by Howard Rheingold. Some of the words Rheingold includes are also discussed here on this page, interestingly enough.
posted by Stoatfarm at 7:30 AM on September 28, 2004

salmacis: I believe when there is a chance for ambiguity, the proper distinction is to say, "this upcoming Wednesday" instead of "next", simply because most people aren't very literal thinkers and will assume you mean "next week's Wednesday."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:33 AM on September 28, 2004

I'm a little disappointed to discover that "hoogalee" is just a word from my native-Danish-speaking mother's Danish vocabulary and not a secret word only members of my family know.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:44 AM on September 28, 2004

i went to the store but failed to buy a shirt?
posted by crush-onastick at 7:52 AM on September 28, 2004

Crush-onastick, the problem is not being unable to say that you DIDN'T buy a shirt. The problem is that simply saying you went to the store with the intention of buying a shirt is ambiguous unless you specifically say that you DID or did NOT buy it in the end, whereas the creole in the given example has evolved into two different ways to say "I went to the store to buy a shirt" based on the end result: "go buy shirt" and "for buy shirt". Each are equally ambiguous to the average English speaker, but not to speakers of that Hawaiian creole.

"I went to the store to buy a shirt" is equally ambiguous to all.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:13 AM on September 28, 2004

Eh. I would assume if someone "went to the store to buy a shirt," she didn't get a shirt. Otherwise she would say, "I went to the store and bought a shirt."
posted by dame at 8:20 AM on September 28, 2004

Not that I'm fluent in German but I'm told that sympathisch is not really translatable. I think Aufhebung/aufheben is in the same boat.

ikkyu2: is nolo really "to want not"? I often say things like "I want to not X" instead of "I don't want to X". Isn't the third person singular present active indicative of nolle just non vult?
posted by kenko at 8:20 AM on September 28, 2004

Dame, what if they're telling you a story? "I went to the store to buy a shirt, and on the way several interesting things happened to me, to wit: blah blah blah. And the interest didn't stop there, my necrotic compatriot! For once at the store I had several unlikely experiences, the recounting to you in measured syllables of poem-craft of one of which in particular would deliver me of pleasure, viz: blah blah blah.".

It would be fair of you to say after this, "so did you buy the shirt, or what?".
posted by kenko at 8:26 AM on September 28, 2004

I love stuff like this. Great thread, thx!

There are several phrases in Norwegian that don't have good translations in English. To be forelsket is literally translated as in 'pre-love', or even 'over-love'. It's the word for the euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love. There really should be a good word for that in every language.

The Danish word huggelig, as discussed above, is a good example, though in my opinion, cozy is a good-enough translation for the adjective. The difficulty comes in when it's used as a verb - to hygge yourself (in Norwegian) cannot be easily conveyed - it literally translates to to cozy yourself, meaning to have a cozy, snug, warm, fun time. I've grown so frustrated with trying to explain it that my wife and I now refer to the concept as 'cozying ourselves' and deal with the strange looks when they come.

Janteloven is a uniquely Norwegian concept which basically states that no one should think they're better than anyone else. It's designed to keep egos firmly in check. A concept quite firmly embedded in the Norwegian psyche, for better and for worse.

Re the 'next' conundrum in English - my wife and I get into trouble with this one all the time. To her, next Thursday would be two days from now. To me, that would be 'this' Thursday and 'next' Thursday would be next week. A fairly simple concept, I always thought, but I guess it depends on what you're used to!
posted by widdershins at 9:18 AM on September 28, 2004

...bocchinara in english: a woman who likes to give blowjobs/ a whore who specialises in giving blowjobs

posted by ikkyu2 at 10:00 AM on September 28, 2004

There's a German word for "alone, together", something with 'zwei' and 'heit' in it.
posted by signal at 1:09 PM on September 28, 2004

dame, you want "ordentlich".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:11 PM on September 28, 2004

Termite, how is "mätt" different from "full"?

"Full" means a lot of things – a bus can be full, or a bottle, or a hard drive. "Mätt" means exactly one thing: I have eaten until I'm not hungry. It's the opposite of "hungry". "Full" is the opposite of "empty".

Or "sated"? Maybe "sated" is the English equivalent I've been looking for. I like this thread.
posted by Termite at 10:54 PM on September 28, 2004

Makheteyneste / macha tayna, (child's spouse's parents) those are your consuegros, a good Spanish word.
Stav, if I were a linguist, I'd study those repeated syllable adjectives (what was that name and how'd you hear it?).
posted by Octaviuz at 11:15 PM on September 28, 2004

As for ser and estar, I think English is weird in this case (i.e. it's my understanding that most languages distingush between be for nature and be for place. (Korean i-da, it-da, respectively(btw, in a nested parenthesis, I hate transliteration))
posted by Octaviuz at 11:21 PM on September 28, 2004

Octaviuz, in hebrew there is a single verb for "ser" and "estar" but it doesn't exist in the present tense! You say "I hungry", "I here" or "I engineer".
"I am what I am" becomes "I what I".
posted by golo at 2:08 AM on September 29, 2004

Hebrew also has the word "stam" Stam is a concept like "just because" but has an added sense of kind of an amused frustration. Why is the sky blue? Stam. It's an agreement that something doesn't have a satisfactory answer, and the participants in the conversation agree that it's so.
posted by zpousman at 7:37 PM on October 7, 2004 [2 favorites]

My American wife says that English "to take the piss (out of X)" has no easy cultural correlate in American english. Watching Americans and English people struggle to convey its meaning, I'm inclined to agree. Americans often guess that it means, for instance, "to take someone down a peg or two", or "to mock", which isn't quite right.

(I have to say that the online definitions seem to agree with those guesses. Maybe it has something to do with the different levels of social acceptability to taking someone down a peg has in the two cultures)
posted by ntk at 1:45 PM on October 8, 2004

ntk: I usually use "deflate" to capture "to take the piss out of." It's not quite there, I agree with you, but I think it's better than "mock" or "take down a peg."
posted by Bryant at 8:03 AM on October 9, 2004

widdershins: A reader of my site e-mailed me to say the "pre-love" word you're looking for is limerence.
posted by waxpancake at 1:30 PM on October 11, 2004

sympatisch is something that is rather hard to translate, but sympathetic kind of fits - on a very basic level, a nice and understanding person. Kind of like Mensch (which, like Schadenfreude has no English equivalent so we stole it from German) - Mensch is a person who is wholly real - trustworthy, all that.
All this talk of gemütlich is taking me back to my days in Austria - this word isn't really German - it's Austrian. It does an incredible job of just conveying the Austrian way of life, taking things very easy and not really worrying too much about those things that don't need to be worried about. *sigh*
posted by danbeckmann at 5:14 PM on October 12, 2004

In some of the posts today, I sense the implication that English is an inferior language because it lacks certain words. The truth is, English is just as unique and difficult as most other languages in the world. And it's also incredibly rich, in no small part because it so willingly borrows concepts from other languages, usually by grabbing a word or phrase (like "schadenfreude" or "esprit de corps") directly from another language.

ikkyu2's points out about the lack of a word that *exactly* describes the concept "don't want." I submit that it's not a lack of one word--instead, we've got a whole bunch of words that each carry a very unique and specific set of connotations, and that more specifically describe the reason we don't want something: hate, dislike, disdain, abhor. We lack the general term, but we can describe the symptoms of the idea with incredible clarity. (Or at least, the language offers us the opportunity to do this--that doesn't mean that we use it to its full capability.)

I second RobotJohnny's recommendation that Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue is worth reading. It's funny, interesting, and packed with tidbits like we're discussing here. More importantly, while he discussed other languages at length, it really is a celebration of English, which is (he suggests) one of the most versatile languages in the world.

After graduating from college, I lived with a German roommate for a couple of years. When he first came to the US, his English was pretty sketchy. We spent hours and hours talking about word connotations.

For example: he spent the first week he was here saying, "I've got a date with my professor at 5 tonight." We had a long talk about the difference (in American English) between "date" and "appointment." And I remember a whole week talking about the difference between "every day" (something that happens each day, in other words "per diem") and "everyday" (commonplace, usual, simple, typical, routine).
posted by jeremy at 8:34 AM on October 13, 2004

Also, "everyday" is an adjective and "every day" is an adverbial phrase. But you know what I mean.
posted by jeremy at 8:36 AM on October 13, 2004

weston, not having a word for cardinal numbers won't do any damage to mathematical concepts. Not being taught about cardinal numbers (and then not having any cultural use for them) will.

In the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up, it was quite common to hear the word "sunbreak" while listening to the weather. I never hear this word in South Florida. But I think that, though the word really isn't in the vocabulary of the average South Floridian, if they moved to Portland, Oregon, they'd pick up the word right quick.

For another example of how the (commonplace) usefulness of a concept affects language, check this out:
Now the ancient Greeks began their contributions to mathematics around the time that zero as an empty place indicator was coming into use in Babylonian mathematics. The Greeks however did not adopt a positional number system. It is worth thinking just how significant this fact is. How could the brilliant mathematical advances of the Greeks not see them adopt a number system with all the advantages that the Babylonian place-value system possessed? The real answer to this question is more subtle than the simple answer that we are about to give, but basically the Greek mathematical achievements were based on geometry. Although Euclid's Elements contains a book on number theory, it is based on geometry. In other words Greek mathematicians did not need to name their numbers since they worked with numbers as lengths of lines. Numbers which required to be named for records were used by merchants, not mathematicians, and hence no clever notation was needed.

From this page. (Emphasis added.)
It seems to me that at least one of the deciding factors in the creation and adoption of a word is it's immediate cultural usefulness.
posted by jeremy at 9:04 AM on October 13, 2004

forelsket = infatuated?
posted by jeremy at 9:16 AM on October 13, 2004

"Full" means a lot of things – a bus can be full, or a bottle, or a hard drive. "Mätt" means exactly one thing: I have eaten until I'm not hungry. It's the opposite of "hungry". "Full" is the opposite of "empty".

But if you say "full" in the context of describing human beings rather than buses, bottles etc. ("I'm full" or "Johnny's full"), it means only one thing: you've/he's eaten until no longer hungry.

You wouldn't say "I'm sated" at the end of a meal unless you were trying to be humorous; sated has a slightly different meaning, that your desires have been completely satisfied. It's most often used in the phrase "sated his/her/your lust" (for sex, food, blood, whatever).
posted by rory at 10:39 AM on October 13, 2004

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