Bloggers’ Questions #3: a roundup

Posted by on July 05, 2012

This week our regular Word of the Week post is replaced by Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell’s roundup of the many interesting responses to the most recent bloggers’ question. Look out for Question #4, which will be coming up shortly.

Last month’s question was:  What word exists in English that you have found to be missing in whatever other language you speak (or in your native language) or/and what word exists in that other language that is missing in English?

This was a popular question, and brought in a record haul of responses and comments. For anyone who has ever learned another language or tried to translate from one language to another, it will come as no surprise that there are large numbers of ‘lexical gaps’, or ‘missing’ equivalents.

Languages are not ‘isomorphic’. They don’t perfectly map onto one other, so a word or phrase in one language won’t necessarily have an exact equivalent in another. Kerry Maxwell mentioned the German word umständlich, which she describes as ‘a useful package’ because it combines a number of ideas in a single word. English simply hasn’t felt the need to evolve a word for this concept. More familiar examples include verbs like be and know – where English manages with a single word but many other languages allocate the different senses to two distinct words. Conversely, English has shallow but numerous languages get by with a paraphrase along the lines of ‘not very deep’. Even words that look like equivalents often differ in their scope. An English beach, for example, is almost always by the sea (or, at a pinch, beside a large lake). But in France, you will often see road signs pointing to la plage when you are far inland – but near a big river.

It is often said that when a language becomes extinct, we lose a whole way of looking at the world which is unique to that speech community. Your responses included a couple of examples of words that reflect this idea, as they encode concepts essential to the speakers’ identity. Greek has φιλότιμο (philotimo), which refers to a ‘set of virtues and moral principles related to dignity, respect, gratitude, pride, loyalty etc’, while Farsi has tarof, ‘a complicated and elaborate system of good manners’. These words describe qualities which are valued in the culture and which, in the interests of social stability, everyone is encouraged to follow. There are many examples of words like this: in Xhosa, for instance, they have ubuntu, sometimes translated as ‘humanness’ – but the whole point about these words is that they are essentially untranslatable.

There are all sorts of reasons why lexical gaps exist. One comment points out that English hot is ambiguous when it refers to food (‘watch out for those beans – they’re hot!’), whereas Spanish distinguishes between caliente and picante. Maybe this is because ‘hot’ (spicy) food is a relatively recent addition to British cuisine, and the language just hasn’t caught up. Partner might be a similar case: if you say ‘he’s my partner’, you could be referring to someone you run a business with, or to the person you live with in a sexual relationship. English has not yet adapted to the social changes which have led to various kinds of long-term living arrangements for people who are romantically involved, in addition to marriage. Those who feel partner isn’t quite right end up using expressions like ‘my other half’ or (in Australia) ‘my de facto’ (not to mention significant other). But as B.J. Epstein tells us, Swedish has updated its vocabulary, and even has different words for a partner you live with and one who still lives in their own home.

Another reason why languages don’t always have matching sets of words is because the physical or economic conditions of life are different in different places. Jonathan Marks discusses the Polish word załatwić, which refers to ‘the art of gaining unofficial access to goods or services which are otherwise unavailable’. English doesn’t have anything similar – but it hasn’t needed a word to express this concept (yet). And it’s a fair bet that załatwić is less frequent in Poland now, except when referring to the time when this was an essential life-skill. There is some disagreement among readers about whether kettles exist in the Spanish-speaking world, but the same point applies: if the object isn’t part of people’s lives, they don’t need a word for it. In fact, kettles are relatively scarce in the United States too, and if you compare the American English COCA corpus with the British National Corpus, you find that kettle is almost three times as common in British English – and many of the American examples aren’t about the kitchen appliance anyway, but are phrases like ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ or ‘a different kettle of fish’.

Cultural differences have all sorts of linguistic consequences, of course. An extreme case is illustrated by Milica Majstorović’s reference to the Serbian word slava or krsna slava: unique to Serbian because ‘it refers to the tradition that only Serbs have …the celebration of the family’s patron saint’. But can we deduce anything about Portuguese cultural norms from the fact that – as Manuel tells us – there is a word (desenrascar) to describe the act of ‘solving a situation at the last minute’? Is this something Portuguese (or Brazilian) people do a lot of? Similarly, there’s a great post on Stan Carey’s blog about one of his own favourites, the Irish mar dhea, which he describesas ‘a sceptical interjection used to cast doubt, dissent or derision (or all three) on whatever phrase or clause precedes it’. But I’d be reluctant to conclude from this that the Irish are a uniquely sceptical people. Adam Kilgarriff’s suggestion – posh – is hard to translate exactly: it is, as he says, ‘a very English concept’, and one which dictionaries struggle to describe in all its nuances. Leanne Boytinck’s favourite is the German word Vorfreude (‘Joy-before’), ‘which is so much more than anticipation’, and she mentions the old saying ‘Die Vorfreude ist die groesste Freude!’ (Vorfreude is the greatest joy). It’s perhaps not so surprising that a culture in which people save for the future far more than people in the US or UK do should have a word like Vorfreude.

‘Kinship terms’ – the names we give to people who are related to us – are a well-known area of difference among languages. As John Estill points out, Spanish has a word to solve ‘the problem of what to call the father of my daughter’s husband… He is my “consuegro”, and I am his’. There are many societies which have words for even more distant relationships than these, whereas there are relatively few kinship terms in English.

For anyone interested in this subject, I recommend the classic book by Berlin and Kay (1969) on the way that different cultures describe colours – there’s a good summary in Wikipedia. And thanks to everyone for contributing so many interesting suggestions.

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