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 gå: 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?Email this Post