This month’s question isn’t an uncommon one, but it always provides interesting responses and a lot of debate:
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?
Here are some answers from our bloggers:
There are some great Swedish words that don’t exist in English. Two very practical ones are sambo and särbo. Sambo is the word for a partner you live with and särbo is the word for a partner you don’t live with (i.e. you keep separate homes). In English, partner is so generalised and people have to specify whether they mean a business partner, a dancing partner, a romantic partner, etc. Terms such as girlfriend or boyfriend are very gendered and also sound quite young, while lover seems both more old-fashioned and also a bit awkward. It would be nice if we had words that only referred to a romantic partner.
Another Swedish word I’d like to import is lagom, which means just right. How warm is it today? Lagom. How much coffee should I pour you? Lagom. How much money do you earn? Lagom. It’s not too much, not too little, but just the perfect amount.
In Swedish, I love the verb ‘fika’, which is sort of ‘to have a social
coffee break’. I love that it’s a verb, rather than a noun; breaking
for coffee is something you *do* in Swedish, not something you *have*.
It also usually involves kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls), and you can’t
argue with the fabulousness of that.
But when speaking Swedish (which is all too rare for me these days), I
very much miss the word ‘please’. All the ways to soften requests in
Swedish are grammatically more complex (along the lines of ‘would you
be kind and do this for me?’), so I tend to just add ‘tack’ (‘thanks’)
to requests, which feels a bit presumptuous to me.
One word in German that I’ve always had a real soft spot for is umständlich.
It’s such a useful package – describing something being a bit tricky, slightly awkward, a tad inconvenient, a little impractical …. – and all in a way that doesn’t have any negative overtones, you can pop it into a conversation anywhere. There’s no adjective that quite does that job in English.
I’m very fond of the Irish phrase mar dhea, literally “as were it” and variously anglicised as moryah, moya, muryaa, mara-ya, and so on. It’s a sceptical interjection, sometimes (unhelpfully) translated as forsooth but closer in meaning to a dubious or derisive supposedly or As if! It occurs commonly in Irish and Hiberno-English speech and literature. I wrote about mar dhea/moryah in more detail on my own blog recently.
A very English concept.
Anyone who has spent any time around Iranians will have come across both the Farsi word tarof, and the cultural habits it embodies. As I understand it, tarof is a complicated and elaborate system of good manners which entails, among other things, repeatedly pressing food and drink on your guests if you are a host, and repeatedly refusing the offer only to succumb gracefully in the end if you are a guest. For those raised in the “thanks but I’ve had enough” culture of the UK it takes some getting used to, but it’s an expression of the warmth and generosity of the Iranian people and as such I’ve come to love it, even while finding it slightly exasperating.
I remember, when I visited Poland in the 1980s, going into food shops and being met by the grim sight of shelves of vinegar and mustard and not much else, but then going into people’s homes and being greeted by tables laden with all manner of food and drink. The key to this paradox is in the word ‘załatwić’.
It’s a transitive verb derived from the adjective ‘łatwy’ (= easy) and its basic meanings roam across the territories of fix, arrange, organise, accomplish, do, deal with, handle, take care of, settle, dispose of …..
But it’s also used as an economical way of referring to the art of gaining unofficial access to goods or services which are otherwise unavailable, or at least difficult to get hold of.
This sense of ‘załatwić’ probably had its heyday in the communist era, when its grammatical objects might include such objects of desire as tickets to events, spare parts for your car, a job, a flat, a plumber ….. not to mention food and drink or clothing that wasn’t available through official channels. But it’s still very much in use, and the concept is probably timeless and universal.
It’s often accompanied by the adverbial expression ‘po znajomości’ (= through somebody I/we/you/they know) and of course the assumption is that if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – we’re all in this together, it’s us against them – so there’s a conceptual link with the iconic Polish word ‘solidarność’ (= solidarity), which achieved fame in 1980 as the name of the first independent trade union in a communist-governed country. And here, by the way, is another yawning lexical gap in English: ‘solidarność’ is part of a complete, happy word family including adjective, adverb and verb forms, while in English only the noun is in general use.
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Inshallah (or Insha’Allah)
I was in Algeria last week and (not for the first time) I noticed how important this word is in Arabic and Islamic culture. This is a transliteration of the Arabic إن شاء الله , and means of course ‘God willing’. It comes up in expressions like ‘I’ll be coming to a conference in the UK next month, Inshallah’. OK, so there is not exactly a lexical gap in English, but ‘God willing’ – though similar in its literal meaning – is not a true equivalent in terms of its cultural importance. ‘God willing’ is not at all frequent and it’s mostly used quite casually, as a sort of filler. By contrast, in places like Algeria, Inshallah can be guaranteed to appear several times in every conversation, and the concept it encodes is deeply embedded in the way people think. In our corpus, we have just over 400 instances of the expression ‘God willing’ – but almost 150 ‘Inshallahs’, which is pretty striking considering this is a corpus of English. Examples include: “In 2008, inshallah , he will have a little brother or sister.” ” Inshallah you’ll have fun during these two years and most importantly achieve great results”. I would love to know its frequency in a corpus of Arabic.