global English Live English

Ready, steady, go!

The “I wish X language had word W, which is so useful in Y” discussion is usually an invitation to submit fun and weird words that are highly specific and useful in language Y.  For example, I did one post on great words that English lacks, and Danish provides two:  flueknipper (literally, someone who, er, has sex with a fly; figuratively, someone who focuses on the wrong tiny details), and bagstiv (“still drunk the morning after”).

But one of my most frequent foreign-language frustrations comes up in three European languages I know, the lack of a rather basic bit of English: go. Yes, plain go. Not go in all of its auxiliary and other uses like “I’m going to explode” or “And then she goes ‘are you really gonna wear that?’ and I go ‘Are you outta your mind?'”  No language uses go through the range of grammar in exactly the way English does.

But I mean go the plain verb of motion. I want to go. I don’t want to go. I went to Spain. He’s going to the movies. You need this word constantly in English, and I think it’s basically an atomic unit of thought for me: to go somewhere is unsplittable, basic.

Except that it is splittable.  German and Danish, close cousins, both require me to specify my means of locomotion.  In German, it’s fairly simple:  gehen (the cognate to go) means “to go [by foot]”, and fahren means “to go [by vehicle]”. You have to make a choice every time. I’d love to be able to say “Ich bin nach Frankreich gegangen,” for I went to France, but that would imply a very long and unusual transatlantic walk.

Danish has : cognate to go and gehen.  Like gehen, though, it can only mean “to walk”. Then there’s køre, which means to drive. There’s a general use of the verb tage, which means “to take” but can also mean to travel. It has a pretty wide range, so I can say Jeg tog til Frankrig, “I went to France,” but it would be weird to say Jeg tog til biografen, “I went to the cinema,” since the cinema is in walking distance.  So again, no go.

And then Russian. Good lord, I won’t try to do justice to the complexity of verbs of motion in this paragraph, but let’s just say that Russian makes you specify — nearly every time — all of the following: vehicular versus foot going, one-way versus round-trips, and habitual versus singular trips.  How I long for to go in Russian, but I’ll never get it, and I worry I’ll never fully master the system that Russian makes you grapple with.  People always understand me – context does a lot of the work here – but I know I sometimes make little mistakes, just like Russians do with English articles. (Russian has no a or the.)

Languages around the world borrow from English these days – but they borrow the wrong things, from the Russian biznesmen (at least it’s clear what it means) to the German Handy (what’s that you say? this faux-anglicism means “mobile phone”).  Hey guys, I got a great English word for you to borrow.  So short. So easy.  Useful in Scrabble–just two letters!  Are you ready?  Set?

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Robert Lane Greene


  • As an American living in Germany, I too am frustrated by the lack of a universal equivalent of “go”. There’s a very similar absence of another common universal verb: “put”. I often want to say that “I put something somewhere”, but there’s no universal verb for it; as with “go”, you have to specify exactly *how* you put the thing somewhere. For example, “liegen”, ‘stellen”, “hängen”. Aaaaaaargh. Sometimes you don’t exactly lay, stand, or hang something, you just *put* it away. A friend suggested “hintun” as an approximate equivalent for “put away”, but it seems Germans don’t actually use that very often.

    Also, there’s another idiomatic sense of “go” that I often want to translate, and can’t: “The vacuum cleaner goes in the closet”. But if I say “Der Staubsauger geht in den Shrank”, my friends laugh at me, because vacuum cleaners can’t, you know, walk.

  • Moroccan Arabic has a verb, ‘mshi’, that is substitutable for ‘go’ in nearly every context except one: it is considered extremely rude to use it in the imperative, so you can say ‘mshi’ to an animal such as a dog, but if you want to tell a person to ‘go’, you have to use another verb.

  • Broadly speaking, Romance languages do have all-purpose ‘go’ verbs, while Slavonic and Germanic languages (apart from English) don’t.

    If we didn’t have the option of ‘go’ in English, we’d have to be more precise, and it would at least spare us from wasting time on exchanges like this:
    A “I went to that new shopping centre yesterday.”
    B “Oh, yes. That one-way traffic system’s a bit confusing, isn’t it, and there aren’t really enough parking meters, are there?”
    A “I don’t know. I walked.”

    In German you can say, for example “Sie geht nach Amerika”, meaning that she’s going there to start a new job, a course of study, a new life, etc.

    About ‘put’ (re. Jasper’s comment): In my experience German speakers use ‘tun’ quite a lot for ‘stellen’ and ‘legen’ (you meant ‘legen’, not ‘liegen’) though not so much for ‘hängen’. (But of course it’s not considered really ‘proper’.)

    And as for ‘go’ or ‘put’ being atomic, well, I suppose there’s no atom so small that it can’t be split. Or, alternatively, something can be an atom in one language but a molecule in another.

  • Like Danish Dutch has a word comaparable to flueknipper.

    In Holland we say mierenneuker which means ant ficker.

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